Mo Hayder delivers the most thought provoking thriller I have ever encountered. Set in 1990 Tokyo with roots that take you back to the 1937 Nanking massacre, this account is positively chilling.
Three voices have entered my head.
Grey: is a personally troubled, young student from London, with a highly unstable past and a vested interest in her research of war atrocities, most notably the 1937 Nanking Massacre. She has come to Tokyo in search of Shi Chonming, a Nanking survivor, who Grey believes also possesses a lost piece of film. We learn more about her and her obsession with Chongming as the story advances, peeling back the layers slowly as one might an onion.
It is 1990
Shi Chongming stood in the doorway, very smart and correct, looking at me in silence, his hands at his sides as if he was waiting to be inspected. He was incredibly tiny, like a doll, and around the delicate triangle of his face hung shoulder, length hair, perfectly white, as if he had a snow shawl draped across his shoulders.
I’m not very good at knowing what other people are thinking, but I do know that you can see tragedy, real tragedy, sitting just inside a person’s gaze. You can almost always see where a person has been if you look hard enough. It had taken me such a long time to track down Shi Chongming. He was in his seventies, and it was amazing to me that, in spite of his age and in spite of what he must feel about the Japanese, he was here, a visiting professor at Todai, the greatest university in Japan.
Chongming: We hear his voice as he remembers his time in Nanking:
We slept fitfully, in our shoes just as before. A little before dawn we were woken by a series of tremendous screams. It seemed to be coming from only a few streets away and it was distinctly a woman’s voice. I looked across at Shujin. She lay absolutely rigid, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, her head resting on the wooden pillow. The screaming continued for about five minutes, getting more desperate and more horrible, until at last it faded to indistinct sobs, and finally silence. Then the noise of a motorcycle on the main street thundered down the alley, shaking the shutters and making the bowl of tea on the bed-stand rock.
At the base of the tree the handcart had been set upright, our blankets and belongings scattered around it. A set of muffled tracks led away into the trees. I swerved into them, my eyes watering, ducking as the bare branches whipped against my face. The track led on for a few more yards, then changed. I skidded to a halt, my heart racing; the tracks had become wider here. An area of disturbed snow stretched around me for several feet, as if she had fallen to the ground in pain. Or as if there had been a struggle. Something lay half buried at my feet. I fell to a crouch and snatched it up, turning it over in my hands. A thin piece of tape, frayed and torn. My thoughts slowed, a terrible dread creeping over me. Attached to the tape were two Imperial Japanese Army dogtags.
In direct contrast to the atrocities of this story lay Hayder’s breathless, lyrical prose. She paints vivid scenes with her words.
In the distance, black against the sky, a behemoth of tinted glass supported by eight massive black columns rocketed up above all the other skyscrapers. Four gigantic black marble gargoyles crouched on each corner of the roof, gas streams in their mouths blowing fire jets fifty feet out until the sky seemed to be on fire.
Bolted by a mechanical arm to the crown of the skyscraper there was a vast cut-out of a woman sitting on a swing. Marilyn Monroe. She must have been thirty feet from her white high heels to her peroxide hair, and she swung back and forward in fifty foot arcs, molten neon flickering so that her white summer dress appeared to be blowing up above her waist. That’s Some Like It Hot. The club where we work.
It is here where Grey finds work and makes a sinister connection, one that may help her convince Chongming to let her see the film she so desperately needs to see.
Hayder does not just paint great backdrops; she also introduces us to characters that slither deep into our consciousness.
In the centre of the gang was a slim man in a black polo- neck, his hair tied in a ponytail. He was pushing a wheelchair, in which sat a diminutive insectile man, fragile as an ageing iguana. His head was small, his skin as dry and crenulated as a walnut, and his nose was just a tiny isosceles, nothing more than two shady dabs for nostrils – like a skull’s. The wizened hands that poked out from his suit cuffs were long and brown and dry as dead leaves.
Hayder deftly controls the pace at which both these narratives unfold, tension building with each turn of the page. I was riveted, unwilling just then, to leave behind the events of 1990, and but a few pages later, so equally reluctant to leave Nanking.
Iris Chang: Author of The Rape of Nanking, to whom Hayder has dedicated this book, whose bravery and scholarship first lifted the name of Nanking out of obscurity.
This is her voice:
“I want the rape of Nanking to penetrate into public consciousness. Unless we truly understand how these atrocities can happen, we can’t be certain that it won’t happen again.
If the Japanese government doesn’t reckon with the crimes of its wartime leaders, history is going to leave them as tainted as their ancestors. You can’t blame this generation for what happened years ago, but you can blame them for not acknowledging these crimes.
Denial is an integral part of atrocity, and it’s a natural part after a society has committed genocide. First you kill, and then the memory of killing is killed.”
I want to hear more.