Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: A raven who has learned to speak from watching movies befriends a young girl whose eyes were ruined in a freak accident. He brings her eyeballs he steals from other people, and when she puts them in her eye sockets, she sees memories from their original owners. Desperate to make the girl happy, the raven brings her more and more eyeballs. This is also the story of a young girl, Nami, who has lost her memories and cannot seem to live up to the expectations of those around her. The stories intertwine in a haunting, dreamy, horrific narrative evoking the raw and universal need for love.

Thoughts: This is a very strange book, one that’s easy for me to talk about but difficult for me to feel like I’m reviewing properly. It starts off rather slow, picks up in intrigue, throws in a whole load of body horror, slows right down again, and then kind of ambles along with the rest of the supernatural mystery that makes up the majority of the book, tying it all together near the end. As far as YA novels go, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else like it, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.

It starts off with a fairy tale about a raven, who learns to talk and develops a friendship with a little blind girl who doesn’t realise that her conversation partner isn’t human. The raven begins stealing eyes for her, and wearing those eyes gives the girl glimpses into the lives of the people they were stolen from. Only she begins to have nightmares of a terrifying black monster who attacks and kills people, the last memory stored in the stolen eyes.

Then we cut to Nami, who loses an eye in a terrible accident, and along with the eye loses her memory. She gets a transplanted replacement, which starts to show her memories from its previous owner when it gets visual triggers, and Nami begins to unravel not only the life of her new eye’s donor, but also the circumstances surrounding his death. Her lack of memories and change in personality causes heartbreaking friction with her family and friends, and she decides to leave home and travel to the donor’s hometown, to solve the mystery behind his demise.

Eventually we get a third perspective, cut in between Nami’s chapters, where we follow Shun Miki and his strange and terrible power to prevent death. It’s very specific, and rather stomach-churning. He can inflict wounds on creatures and the wounds will neither get infected nor cause death, no matter what he does. He starts out, as any young psychopath does, on insects, moving to animals, and eventually trying his abilities on humans. This is where the body horror begins, and if you’re squeamish, I urge you to be cautious with this book because you will be reading about people grafted to each other, flayed alive (and kept alive, because none of the wounds inflicted cause harm) and their innards played with and repositioned, and similar. I found these chapters particularly difficult to read, since body horror is, evidently, one of my squicks.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Shun Miki’s activities were discovered by the young man whose eye is now in Nami’s possession, but the mystery is in his true identity, and the story is mostly Nami trying to uncover that and bring closure to a very weird set of events. This is partly why the story moves so slowly. Nami speaks to a lot of people around town, thinks she finds the right info, only to run into obstacles, rinse and repeat. Standard mystery fare, in that regard. Not much action or tension really occurs until near the end (and when it does, be prepared again for more body horror), leaving Nami’s chapters feeling slow and Miki’s feeling weirdly uninteresting, largely because he’s so lacking in emotion to begin with. His manipulations of the human body leave him more curiously detached than anything else, and so in addition to the uncomfortable material presented in his sections of the story, most of the driving force is in seeing into the mind of someone who’s extremely mentally ill. Nami’s sections are by far the most interesting, I’d say.

Otsuichi has a knack for disturbing material, there’s no denying that. As slow as the story can be sometimes, there’s a bit of trainwreck appeal to it all, because you want to keep reading and see the gory details laid bare before you. The biggest drawback that I’ve seen to his writing so far (assuming the translator has done a decent job with translation, that is, since I don’t have the skill to read the original version) is in the way the story is so distanced from the reader. We always see the action, but are never a part of it. The story’s good, the writing’s good, but I’ve found that I haven’t really been able to sink into the book the way I can others; it seems like I’m always just in the helicopter, circling overhead and watching it all happen rather than really riding on the shoulders of the characters themselves.

While the raven story at the beginning may seem weird and a bit of a non-sequitor, it does tie back in eventually, which made me happy since at first it seemed like it was a very weird and inappropriate introduction. But it serves to drive home a big theme that runs through all 3 different stories: doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Or at least, what you believe are the right reasons. The raven attacks and disfigures people because he wants to make the little girl happy. Nami runs away from home and leaves behind the scraps of her life in an attempt to solve a murder mystery. Miki assaults and manipulates people’s bodies to his own curiosity, but also to save and prolong their lives, and he does what he can to keep his victims comfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does horrible things in the belief that they’re doing the right thing for someone.

So, did I like this book? Yes and no. It was written well, the story was compelling, and I think it would make a great horror movie, but the distanced feel throughout, combined with the discomfort I got from the sheer amount of body horror, made it too uncomfortable to really say that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, and definitely an uncommon offering on the YA bookshelves, but I don’t think I’d read it again, and I can’t say that it will appeal to a wide audience. Learning to tell the difference between something bad and something that I didn’t like (and similarly, the difference between something that’s good and something that I did like) is tough, but I think in the end I can say that yes, this was a good book, but no, I didn’t really like it. But your mileage may vary; it body horror doesn’t get to you the same way it gets to me, you might well find Black Fairy Tale to be a classic of YA J-horror novels. It has the potential, for certain.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: Nine year old Satsuki dies after being pushed out of a tree by one of her friends. This is the story she tells of how it happened, and the lengths her friends go to in order to try and cover it up, not wanting to upset anyone. But she is soon missed, and her lost sandal provides a clue. The writing is both lyrical and stark, and the effect veers from horrifying to absurd as the people closest to her simultaneously search for her body, and try to hide it. Days pass and her body starts to decompose, while her ghost calmly narrates, and her panicked friends struggle to keep their secret.

The collection also includes “Yuko”, the story of a young woman who takes a job looking after an elderly couple. Kiyone enjoys her work, but is unnerved because she never meets Yuko, the wife. Yuko’s husband pretends that she is still around, while requesting half of their previous portions of food. He never allows Kiyone to clean the bedroom he shares with Yuko. And when she finally trespasses into their room, it is filled with dolls.

This is a little girl’s account of her life after death, and our unique version of The Lovely Bones. It defies the conventional definition of genres. A ghost story, yes, and YA, too. Dark fantasy with humor. Literary fiction with prepubescent innocence and manga sensibilities. It is many things but a simple story, too. You’ll be fascinated with the unique world of Otsuichi, a very young and prolific author, in his first published work.

Review: I’ve been making extra effort recently to read fiction involving non-Western cultures that’s actually written by people who have spent time living in that culture. It doesn’t guarantee a work free from cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes, but it does allow me a better opportunity to experience works that came from other cultures, written in them rather than about them, if that distinction makes sense. Research came take you a long way, but only do far; there’s a level of experience that one can only get with immersion, and the depth of immersion also depends on whether you approach the culture as an outsider or as someone who was raised within it.

Japan has been a long-time love of mine, so reading things about it and from within it always appeals to me. And over time I’ve learned that fiction from the “about” perspective usually have their problems; ones which I can spot easily, and I haven’t even been there yet. Problems with the language, problems with names, problems with weird assumptions that people often get from having watching a few anime and spent a semester of university there and then never doing more research than that. It’s probably safest for me to dive deeper into books written primarily  by Japanese people when I yearn for fiction, especially SFF, about Japan.

Otsuichi’s Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is a republication of 2 short stories. The first one, told from the perspective of young dead Satsuki, seems simple enough at first, but gradually grows in complexity and creepiness. Satsuki tells the story of how her best friend accidentally-on-purpose killed her, and the subsequent attempts to cover up the death so that nobody discovers what happened. The narrative seems a bit distanced at times, though that does make sense since Satsuki is the passive observer to all the events, incapable of acting upon anything or influencing the story due to her death. She watches as her friend and her friend’s brother go to increasing lengths to hide the body, as the tension heightens and they worry they’ll be caught, and the eventual surprising assistance by an unassuming young woman who is no stranger to hiding dead bodies.

And that final reveal was baffling for a moment, and then utterly chilling. It actually made me stop reading for a moment to consider the ramifications, and to think that Satsuki’s story was actually only a small part of a larger and grander tale. Very disturbing, and that Otsuichi wrote this kind of compelling fiction while still in high school is impressive.

The second story in the book, Yuko, is told mostly from the perspective of Kiyone, a young woman who cooks and cleans for an aged man and his never-seen wife. Kiyone thinks little of this for a while, accepting that the unseen Yuko is very ill, until one day she starts putting pieces of the puzzle together, trespasses in the elderly couple’s rooms, and sees Yuko surrounded by a lot of dolls.

Yuko, who appears to be a doll herself.

Kiyone hears from people in town that the man she works for once had a wife, but the wife passed away years ago.

And yet, we see snippets of him sometimes talking to Yuko. But is he talking to a real woman, a woman so ill she often can’t move and appears lifeless, or a life-size doll that he believes is his dead wife?

The ending is actually a bit ambiguous, and it’s easy to interpret things in one way or the other. I have my own theories on what happened, but things in the story aren’t as clear as they seem to be, and there’s always another layer to the mystery, along with speculation. For all that it was short, it said a lot, both about the lengths to which we will go to delude ourselves, the assumptions we will make about people will illnesses and disabilities, and the danger of knowing too much or too little. It’s a story for reading and then for reading between the lines.

I’d say this was a good introduction to Otsuichi’s work, a nice teaser for what’s to come. It’s low-investment; you can finish both of these stories pretty quickly, and there’s an appeal to a wide age range, since they’re rather YA-oriented but still creepy and nuanced enough to appeal to adults who want to feel a quick tingle down their spine. It’s worth a real if you’re curious about the kind of ghost stories that can come out of Japan, and, if like me, you want to read more books written by people whose native language isn’t English.

(Received for review from the publisher.)