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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Minato Kanae

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To purchase Penance

Title: Penance
Author: Minato Kanae
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 227 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Penance - US
Penance - UK
Penance - Canada
Penance - India
DVD: Penance - US
  • Japanese title: 贖罪
  • Translated by Philip Gabriel
  • Penance was made into a TV mini-series in 2012, directed by Kurosawa Kiyoshi

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent idea(s), doesn't quite work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu . 8/7/2017 Preeti Zachariah
Publishers Weekly . 13/2/2017 .
Wall St. Journal . 14/4/2017 Tom Nolan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Minato knows how to dissect dysfunctionality, explore human darkness and weave in impending doom with an expert hand, Japanese style, of course." - Preeti Zachariah, The Hindu

  • "Minato has crafted an unnerving tale of tragedy, guilt, and penance." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Aside from a brief summing-up 'The Final Chapter', Penance is divided into five parts, each in the voice of a different character. The parts are successive too -- following on one another, though in quite cleverly not-entirely-obvious ways -- while each account is also largely retrospective, dredging up the past, and in particular one shared, horrible event that has affected each of the five characters.
       A Translator's Note at the outset helpfully explains: "Until 2010, Japan had a fifteen-year statute of limitations o the crime of murder". As you can guess, the story involves an unsolved murder that happened fifteen years earlier.
       The crime took place in a small, rural town in Japan -- famed for its clean air, which is also given as the reason precision instruments company Adachi Manufacturing decided to build a factory there. Emily, the daughter of one of the executives who move to the town, is a ten-year-old girl who joins the fourth grade. On the big family holiday of Obon, when everyone tends to be very busy, she goes to play with four of the local girls -- Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuka. While on the school grounds they are approached by a stranger, who lures Emily away. When the others finally decide to find out what happened to her, they find her violated corpse.
       One by one, the girls retell the events of that day, focusing on different aspects of the before and after. They feel tremendous guilt about what happened, but are also scarred by some of the surrounding events -- the girl who waited with the body while the others went for help traumatized by what she realizes but can barely admit to herself must have been a terrible sexual violation, another who did remember the man's face but couldn't bring herself to tell anyone about it (and feared he would come after her if she ever did), and so on.
       In addition, there's Asako, Emily's grief-stricken mother, who blamed the girls for what happened to her daughter and, when she and her husband were set to leave the town after the end of his tour of duty there, three years after the crime, confronted the four girls -- inviting them over for cake ... -- and told the thirteen-year-olds:

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.
       So, yeah, it's not exactly surprising that the girls were doubly scarred for life. And now fifteen years -- the statute of limitations -- are almost up .....
       The novel opens with the account by Sae, presented in the form of a letter to Asako. As she explains, she at least thinks she's done her penance. Things certainly did not work out right for her -- in no small part because of the trauma of Emily's murder, which even physically affected her.
       The second part has another survivor, Maki, address a PTA meeting -- at which Asako is present. Maki is an elementary school teacher, and she is addressing the PTA about a violent incident that happened at the school. She knows about what happened to Sae -- it was on the news ... -- and she received a copy of Sae's letter from Asako (as have the other girls involved). Maki, too, feels she has done her penance.
       The third account is a sort of confessional, by Akiko, who mostly withdrew from the world after the murder, but was long able to rely on her supportive older brother -- until she too was confronted with another great horror. She doesn't seem fully aware who she is speaking with, under the impression that Asako is a professional counselor and only at the end finding: "You remind me more and more of Emily's mother ....".
       Finally, Yuka is about to give birth ... to her brother-in-law's child, and has yet another story of a messed-up life to relate to Asako.
       Asako's is the last turn, and of course she finds everything has been turned around. Her curse on the girls -- all too successful -- has turned on her as well: "how should I do penance for that ?" she wonders about the things she set in motion (and did a poor job of setting right along the way). Each of the previous accounts revisited the events around Emily's murder, and hers does as well, presenting yet another perspective -- and new information. At least the crime is finally cleared up .....
       The la ronde-variation succession of accounts is a fairly clever presentation -- even if Emily's murder is a particularly ugly crime to repeatedly return to -- and the effects on each of the surviving girls quite the variety. But there's a sour taste to a lot of these circumstances, much of the story isn't so much dark as it is ugly. There's also a lot of bad parenting here, and there's a lot of very, very creepy behavior by most of the men who figure in the novel. The physical violence committed against children is particularly disturbing -- aside from Emily's rape and murder, another child is gravely injured and another one molested -- and there are also some adult deaths (though these are presented as more justifiable -- bad men getting what they deserve). The psychological violence is also troubling, especially against the children: individual failures abound, and it's no wonder pretty much everyone winds up screwed up.
       Minato's elaborate story does hold some interest, including culturally, and there are certainly a lot of dark twists, but it is a pretty ugly tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 May 2017

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Penance: Reviews: Penance - the mini-series: Other books by Minato Kanae under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Minato Kanae (湊かなえ) was born in 1973.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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