originally published 2012 as Shokuzai (贖罪)
translated by Philip Gabriel
"Otherwise, you'd get revenge."
One day five little girls who formed a circle of friends went out to play, but only four returned home. According to the back-cover blurb, Emily ends up dead at the hands of an unknown assailant after the other girls are "tricked" into leaving her alone with him. Emily's case would go unsolved over the next fifteen years, which, coincidentally, as we learn from the translator's note at the beginning of the book, was the amount of time (before 2010) allotted for the statute of limitations in the case of murder.
One might guess from what I've just written that the focus of this book would be on finding the murderer and solving the old case before the fifteen years are up, but that's not quite how this story works. Three years after Emily was killed, her mother invites the other four girls -- Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuka (all now thirteen) to her home for cake, but it isn't a social occasion: she lets them know unequivocally that it is their fault her daughter is dead, that they are "all murderers," and gives them an ultimatum:
"I will never forgive you, unless you find the murderer before the statute of limitations is up. If you can't do that, then atone for what you've done, in a way I'll accept. If you don't do either one, I'm telling you here and now -- I will have revenge on each and every one of you. I have far more money and power than your parents, and I'll make you suffer far worse than Emily ever did. I'm her parent, and I'm the only one who has that right." (71)
Sheesh - it's a terrible enough burden to lay on four young girls, and it's one which has stayed with each of them for fifteen years, affecting each one differently as they grew into women. The novel is composed of five first-person accounts from all of the main characters, and examines how the murder and then the "curse" (so-called by the back-cover blurb) put on them by Emily's mother has followed them over the years. All I will say so as not to ruin the story that unfolds here is that what emerges from each narrative is dark moving to darker as the author delves deep into each person's troubled psyche.
The question to keep in mind (in my opinion) while reading is not exactly one of whodunit, but more to the point, it becomes a matter of who is actually responsible for Emily's death. In that sense there is a sort of tragic irony underpinning the novel which brings it back full circle to where it begins. I'll let others discover how this is so, but in the meantime, Penance is deeply disturbing on many, many levels so reader beware.
Penance is neither for faint-hearted readers, nor is it a novel for those who prefer happy endings. It goes well beyond a standard crime novel, moving swiftly into psychological territory, where some readers may not wish to find themselves. Trust me on that one.
crime fiction from Japan