This is a little piece of intrigue, and make no mistake, it’s intriguing to see a whole series of books like this being launched, from a tiny specialist house, where every volume is just one short story, given its world premiere in English yet by a modern, notable Japanese author. I think as a result of that, the economics of the piece hampers this as being suitable for many book groups, but we all have a spare forty minutes to fill with fiction, don’t we?

The intrigue is definitely continued with the contents, for this builds on a real-life case of one Japanese family, just a couple of years ago. Faced with a spat between the son and daughter, the joshing parents said they’d abandon the boy in a parking lot in a mountainous wilderness in which they had been picnicking, only for the ‘lesson’ to have been learnt to their satisfaction ten minutes or so later, by which time all their attempts to find him again in the closing dusk were in vain…

This work, then, is focused on one of several psychologists brought in to help police and searchers alike understand the boy’s mindset as the tail-lights of the car disappeared downhill, and to think on what happened and whether it was a crime. What the specialists do in fact, over their hot spring baths and copious evening-time beers, is to extemporise into talking about Hansel and Gretel and other folk tales, and things they decide are “deeper” than “cultural theory”. Yes, for all the intrigue and pleasantly engaging set-up, this is a bit of a lumpen chase through the story, where to my taste at least something much more journalistic and simplified was really wanted.

Also, to my dislike, the many sections of dialogue were presented as in a play script, with a name and colon introducing the speeches, and never a verb such as “said”, “pondered” or suchlike offered, as would be the norm. So while this was a short piece destined initially for the English language, I think both the content and the literary approach are to some extent too Japanese. They don’t travel quite as well, and they certainly don’t produce the mystery such a small little item seemed to promise. Still, I would jump on more opportunities to read this book’s sister volumes – I remember reading many of a similar series from Pushkin Press a few years ago, which promised long novellas and short novels from the modern Japanese output, and while some were very much not to my liking, some were great. This publisher’s premise has an equal chance of giving us a right little pearl – it’s just not exactly within these pages, however.

John Lloyd 2*

Backlight by Kanji Hanawa
Red Circle 9781912864041 pbk Nov 2018