Wednesday, April 4, 2012

*The Summer of the Ubume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku

Vertical, 2009
originally published as Ubume no natsu (姑獲鳥の夏), 1994
Translated by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander
320 pp
(trade paper ed.)

"There is nothing that is strange in this world, Sekiguchi."

The Summer of the Ubume is Natsuhiko Kyogoku's first novel, the opening installment of an entire series featuring "Kyogokudo" Chuzenji, the owner of a used bookstore of the same name. Chuzenji is a former priest who  moonlights on the weekends as an eclectic faith healer, curing possessions and performing exorcisms, obliging his clients by acting on their respective beliefs to help put their lives back in order. The book is a mystery story with strong supernatural overtones, one that starts out a bit slow but picks up and gets progressively more weird as it moves along toward its ending, which is the most bizarre solution to a mystery I've run across in all of my years of reading.   And I've been reading a long, long time.

The year is 1952, the place Tokyo.  The war is over, the American Occupation has ended, people are trying to get back to "normal" life but quite yet haven't figured out just what that entails.  Buildings are still in ruins, the black market has recently been outlawed, and tabloid papers are all the rage.  The novel is narrated by Sekiguchi, a freelance tabloid reporter who used to study slime molds but gave up his unprofitable research to focus on his writing and to make some money.  He has come to visit his friend Kyogokudo to ask him his opinion about a story he's recently heard about a woman who has been pregnant for twenty months and has shown absolutely no signs of giving birth.  Her parents are members of the Kuonji family, whose descendants have been practicing medicine since Japan's feudal period. The current Kuonjis  run the Kuonji Clinic, once a prestigious institution, but one which has now fallen on hard times since the war, not only due to damage from air raids, but because of stories about babies disappearing from there shortly after their births.  The pregnant woman's husband disappeared about a year and half earlier, never to be seen again after locking himself into a room in the annex of the clinic.  After the indomitably rational Kyogokudo spends a great deal of time expounding on such topics as quantum mechanics, religion, collective delusions and the truth (as he sees it) underlying the supernatural, he suggests that Sekiguchi go to see their friend, a private investigator.  There, by sheer chance, Seki meets Ryoko, the sister of the pregnant woman, a pivotal event in Sekiguchi's life and in the rest of the story, as she agrees to let the private investigator and Sekiguchi visit the clinic. From there the novel takes a number of bizarre twists and turns,  all leading to an even more bizarre ending. 

Despite Chuzenji's pervading rationality, there is a very potent creep factor at work throughout the novel and supernatural overtones form a frame for this story.    The reader sees the story through the eyes of Sekiguchi, who  is highly impressionable; his own  infallibities work together with things he sees and hears, creating an atmosphere that keeps the tension at a high level.  Among other things, he witnesses his private-eye friend's ability to "see" memories and posit questions based on his "visions;" when he goes to see the Kuonji clinic, evidence turns up of strange experiments; witnesses are either reluctant or missing;   he has bizarre dreams, strange recurring memories and he periodically fades in and out of reality. The author's passion for strange yokai folklore that is woven throughout the novel also helps set the tone so that even though the reader starts wondering  if there isn't  more here than meets the rational eye.

This is such a bizarre story that I couldn't help but really like it.  I can honestly say I've never come across anything quite like it; it is not only an intriguing mystery with a strange, twisted ending, but it's also odd enough to feed my weird monkey.  Beyond the mystery story however, the author also offers his readers a look at a changing Japan which now has an opportunity to consciously detach itself from its old, destructive traditions and philosophies and move into the modern world.  However, readers should be aware that much of this analysis is accomplished largely through the long discussions between Kyogokudo and Sekiguchi that begin this narrative (and are also found throughout the novel), taking up several pages of dialogue on various topics. While my strange brain digested all of this joyfully, unprepared readers may find it stuffy, boring or dull and wonder what it all has to do with anything.  Hang in there: a) it has a lot to do with things, and b) the action picks up shortly afterwards.
I'll give The Summer of the Ubume an NFE rating, meaning not for everyone, although readers who embrace the strange or who already have an interest in Japanese writing will definitely appreciate it.  Mystery readers looking for something outside of the ordinary may like this book, but it's not the usual crime fare most readers of that genre are used to and may prove a bit challenging.  Now let's hope Kodansha will see fit to translate some of the other books in this series.

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