Saturday, August 15, 2015

BOOKSHELF: M. MIYABE'S "ALL SHE WAS WORTH"


If you are looking to achieve textbook-like proficiency in Japan's consumer debt crisis of the 1980s, then Miyuki Miyabe's All She Was Worth will hit the sweet spot. If, however, you have set your sights on the promised top tier mystery of stolen identity and murder against the stormy, forlorn, noir-ish backdrop of Japan, you are in for a bit of a let down. I was partial to the writing style, because it reminded me very much of my own. While there is no doubt this is a well-written, competent work, the nearly clinical description of the credit crisis by way of dry character monologues and its role in fostering the economic bubble that would soon burst was poorly integrated within the established tone of the novel. The mind often meandered for pages on end.

The book introduces us to Detective Honma, a widower with a 10-year-old son, on leave from his job after an accident left him with a bum leg. During his recovery, he is visited by a distant relative, Jun, a young banker, whose fiancée bailed on him during a confrontation about a credit card application that revealed her history of insurmountable debt. He enlists Honma to find her, but when an early investigation turns up a case of stolen identity, Jun refuses to believe it and storms out. Honma remains intrigued, and continues poking and prodding the history of "Shoko Sekine," the fiancée, and the "real" Shoko Sekine, whose identity was assumed. Is the real Shoko dead? Is her impostor also in trouble? Were both women unknowingly running from the same crisis? The book reads like a massive procedural, every chapter dedicated to a different witness. The beauty of solving the mystery lies in Honma's creativity and perseverance, as he is off duty and unable to merely flash his badge to get people talking. Most of the persons of interest aren't receptive to his initial wiles.

The book falters in the very last chapter by denying readers even the most basic idea of closure, not a shred of accountability, not a hint of due process. All She Was Worth is a striking (if heavy-handed) commentary on the dangers of materialism in a consumer-driven culture, pitting frowned upon individualist tendencies against collectivism and cross-generational familial responsibility. The problem? Just about every question you may come to ponder throughout this text will go unanswered. Some call that an open ending, but it feels as if Miyabe became exasperated with her own novel and decided to quit abruptly. So it stops, just as things finally stir your interest, and you find yourself baffled, if not altogether cheated, staring at those last italicized words and nervously leafing the leftover blank pages, but, alas, that's all she wrote.

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