Penance by Kanae Minato, translated by Philip Gabriel
Published April 11, 2017
In a rural Japanese town, five elementary school students play in a nearby park, unaware that only a few hours later one of them will be dead. When a strange man asks for help from one of the girls, Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuko each compete to be the one chosen, but it’s their newer friend Emily who he leads away. A few hours later Emily is found murdered, and none of the girls can remember what the man looked like. Emily’s mother, Asako, curses the surviving girls and makes them promise that they will either find the man responsible or do penance in some other way.
Shortly before the fifteen-year statute of limitations on murder runs out, each of the girls and Emily’s mother reflect on the events of that fateful day, the aftermath of the murder, and its impact on them.
Penance is a quick-paced, engaging read that you’ll undoubtedly finish in a few hours. Each of the five chapters is set more than a decade after the murder takes place and is told from a different character’s point of view as author Kanae Minato slowly reveals how the events of that day have shaped each girl differently based on their personalities and the role they were asked to play (staying with the body, fetching the police, finding a teacher, or informing Emily’s mother). The characters are clearly differentiated from one another and exhibit believable and unique responses to the trauma they have undergone, but the real draw here is the book’s thorough examination of themes of blame, responsibility, and guilt.
Unfortunately, while I found the characters and their voices completely believable, the unrealistic twists and turns took me out of the story and kept me from being wholeheartedly absorbed in Penance. I don’t always mind when coincidence is used with a heavy hand by an author or when the book requires a certain degree of suspension of disbelief (as evidenced by the fact that The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Little Life are two of my favourite books of all time), but here it struck me as disingenuous for some reason.
Penance was so squarely a three-and-a-half star book for me that I agonized over whether to round up or down on goodreads. Ultimately I rounded up because, despite its faults, Penance is a gripping, well-paced read that never drags. I don’t think it’s a book that will stay with me, but I certainly enjoyed the journey.