Book Review: Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe

MiyabeShadow Family

By Miyuki Miyabe, translator Juliet Winters Carpenter

Originally published in Japan in 2001 with the title R. P. G. (Role Playing Game), Shadow Family is the second of Miyuki Miyabe’s novels to be translated into English (the first was All She Was Worth). The story is ostensibly about a police investigation into two deaths which occur in neighbouring districts of Tokyo, so are at first considered as separate cases and handled by different local police departments. One victim, Ryosuke Tokorada, was a 48-year-old married man with one child, a teenage daughter called Kazumi; the other is a 20-year-old female college student, Naoko Imai. Forensic evidence in the shape of fibres from an unusual jacket made by a Canadian company tie the two cases together, and soon it is clear that the two victims knew each other.

The early chapters of the book are told as a fairly standard police-procedural, as various detectives, mainly Etsuro Takegami, head of the team investigating Tokorada’s death, and a female detective, Chikako Ishizu, an old colleague of Takegami’s who has now been reassigned to his squad, assemble the case, rapidly zeroing in on a main suspect. But the senior investigating officer for both murders suddenly has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital, where he remains in a coma. Before he fell ill, however, he shared with his friend Takegami his rather different theory about the cases, a theory which Takegami gains permission to test.

Tokorada’s computer reveals numerous emails between himself, his wife, daughter and a non-existent son. It emerges that this family is not his real family but a group of people who have met online and have created an alternative, imaginary family for themselves. In this family, Tokorada is sympathetic to Kazumi when she does badly in her exams, and “Mom” tries to sort out arguments between the “son” and “daughter”. The real Kazumi, a high-achieving, angry teenager, has told the police that she’s been stalked since her father's death, and it is assumed that one of the “shadow family” might be responsible, perhaps staking out the girl as the next victim. Kazumi and her mother arrive at the police station to observe the members of the “shadow family” behind a two-way mirror as the police, who have tracked them down using the recovered emails, question each one of them, in the hope that Kazumi can identify her stalker.

The events of the novel are as illusory as the shadow family of the title. The interrogations are stylised, and we don’t know why they go on for so long against so many rules of procedure, or why Chikako, the female detective, handles Kazumi and her mother in a manner that is not in any police manual. Gradually, several nested realities emerge, as the author challenges our perceptions of identity and the plot takes one or two twists that confront our own ideas of who the characters are and makes us wonder about the pressures of a society that leads these characters, dead and alive, to behave as they have done. The novel is strongest on these points, particularly concerning the feelings and actions that result from apparently “funny” or inconsequential behaviour on the internet, where realities are different and the rules of engagement are in a bubble of their own. The effects of “secret” lives on “real” lives are viewed in several ways, not least from within the police themselves, where the role of the “shadow detective” in the coma parallels that of the case of the “shadow family” at the core of the story. Although people’s use of the internet is now far more common and sophisticated than it was in 2001 when the book was first published, this focus on the psychological effects, rather than on the technology itself, means that the novel remains fresh and has not dated. And, I should not forget to mention, the translation seems excellent.

As a crime story, the book works less well (for example, the detective characters peter out somewhat, despite some interesting hints and an undeveloped line between Kazumi’s mother and Chikako about mothers’ feelings and roles). I think the author is less interested in genre staples than in wanting her readers to experience the psychological stresses of living in a rule-bound, stratified society that makes very high academic demands of its children and that allows little room for the individual to control his or her own life, so some rather awful directions are taken (by one character in particular) in an attempt to break out. Shadow Family is an intriguing and thought-provoking novel – not a warm book or one that fits into any clear definition, but one that leaves an uneasy impression in the mind after its edgy, hallucinatory account is over.

As an aside, the paperback edition of this short book is lovely, with a shiny loose cover and a delicate little Japanese bookmark nestling in the pages about half-way through.

Miyuke Miyabe also writes fantasy, science fiction and historical novels, some for teenagers, as well as crime fiction. Read about her at Wikipedia.

More reviews of Shadow Family are at The Complete Review. Other reviews are at An Adventure in Reading, Standing and Reading, and Profmike's weblog.

My review of All She Was Worth, an earlier crime novel by the same author.

Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise has reviewed Crossfire, a paranormal thriller by Miyuke Miyabe.