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  • Writer's pictureAnanya Ak

Penance Was Draining - But I Loved It

An iPad is kept on an off-white surface, with the cover of Penance open in it. To the right are two teddy bears lying flat, holding hands, labelled, "The bear siblings". Below them is a small yellow paper ball, labelled, "Maki, the sporty one." To the left is a pretty paper doll, labelled, "Sae's French doll", and below that is a blue inhaler, labelled, "Yuka with the asthmatic sister".

About the book

Ten-year-olds Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuka were playing in their schoolyard with their friend Emily when a man none of them recognised took Emily away for some help, with the promise of ice creams after.

Emily never returned.

The four children go looking and find her murdered. The only problem? None of them remembers the man’s face.

Months pass, and suddenly, Emily’s mother screams at the four girls, threatening to take revenge on them if they don’t find the killer or atone for their role in the murder in their own way.

Follow the girls, one by one, as they do their penance.

My thoughts

Have you ever felt like you’re holding your breath?

Like you’ve held your breath for so long you’ve forgotten how to breathe again?

The lack of air is suffocating you, but you can’t…you just can’t take in any air – it’s too painful.

Have you ever felt heavy?

Like there’s an enormous stone on top of your heart, preventing it from doing anything useful?

Like it would be better to just…not feel anything, but the stone makes its presence known every moment?

This suffocated, heavy feeling persisted with me the whole time I was reading Penance by Kanae Minato.

I couldn’t breathe, the emotions were too much; too draining.

I didn’t want to continue – it was too numbing. But I couldn’t stop myself either.

I did, though. Stop myself, I mean.

I read one chapter a day because it was too much to read more than that.

And after every chapter, I went ahead and ranted to my reading buddy, Arya (@quirky.booknerd) because I couldn’t go through the day with the feelings still inside me.

It was a mind-bending book – much sadder than Confessions.

Where I felt a morbid fascination while reading Confessions, I only felt heaviness as I read Penance.

Where Confessions was fast-paced and utterly thrilling, Penance took its time, letting me feel everything those poor, traumatised girls went through, and then taking me further into the massive pit of despair.

The fact that the descent was slow made it even more painful.

After all, when you fall, you want it to be done with, no? You don’t want to prolong the inevitable pain of hitting the bottom.

But somehow, miraculously, I still loved the book.

It is the rawest, most emotional look at what a traumatic event can do to a person – especially when that person is a child. And as someone with a background in mental health, my experience was enhanced as I could put clinical terms to the experiences those characters were having.

Reading this book was educational. Enlightening. Impactful.

Let me warn you, though, dear reader, that this is no ordinary thriller. The mystery of who killed Emily underpins the whole story, but it’s never the focus. What the author looks at instead is the trauma that the witnesses went through; how the event stayed with them their whole life; how it culminated for each of the girls.

Reading about the trauma will repulse you (HOW CAN PEOPLE BE SO AWFUL!) and sadden you (THOSE POOR, POOR GIRLS) and you’ll be helpless in face of the onslaught.

So be warned – you’re in for a terrifying ride. And this ride is more of the out-of-control-car-that-will-inevitably-crash flavour than the usual rollercoaster flavour.

Still want to read the book?

Well. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

(Before picking up the book, be sure to check out the trigger warnings, available on The Storygraph!)

About the author

A headshot of the author, Kanae Minato, wearing a blue and white turtleneck, smiling at the camera.
Kanae Minato

A former home economics teacher and homemaker, Kanae Minato wrote Confessions (which was, by the way, her debut) between household chores. It is a wonder that any decent human being can imagine such gruesome darkness, but if there’s one person you’d never expect it from, it’s a home economics teacher.

But here we are!

She only started writing in her thirties (there’s still hope for me, then!) and her debut was so explosive that it sold 3 million copies in Japan and won several awards.

In her youth, she was an avid fan of the mystery novels written by stalwarts like Agatha Christie, Keigo Higashino, Edogawa Ranpo, Maurice Leblanc, Miyuki Miyabe and Yukito Ayatsuji. And obviously the influence has rubbed off. As a reader, I’d definitely put her work(s) on par with Higashino’s books!

She has been described in Japan as the queen of iyamisu (a subgenre of mystery which deals with the dark side of human nature).

Also by the author: Confessions

About the Translator

The translator, Phillip Gabriel, standing in front of a plain brick wall, wearing a white shirt, smiling at the camera.
Phillip Gabriel

James Philip Gabriel is an American translator and Japanologist. He’s also a professor and former department chair of the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona. More important in this context, perhaps, is that he is one of the major people involved in translating the works of the much-renowned Murakami, into English.

He has also translated works by Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburō Ōe, and Senji Kuroi. Moreover, he has also written a book of his own – Mad Wives and Island Dreams: Shimao Toshio and the Margins of Japanese Literature. As for awards, Dr Gabriel has received the 2001 Sasakawa Prize for Japanese literature, the 2001 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for Translation of Japanese Literature, and the 2006 PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize for Kafka on the Shore.

(Oh well. Murakami translator aside, there doesn’t seem to be much info available about this eminent personality either)

Also by this translator: The Travelling Cat Chronicles


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