This week’s recommendation – `The Goddess Chronicle’ by Natsuo Kirino – is a challenging read.  Rebecca Copeland’s  English translation came out at the beginning of 2013. Originally, I decided not to feature `The Goddess Chronicle’  in this blog. I felt it was too downbeat, too obscure, perhaps just too Japanese. I’m choosing it now because this is a story I haven’t been able to get out of my mind,  so perhaps other Fantasy readers will appreciate its dark charms. `The Goddess Chronicle’ (not to be confused with Aimeé Carter’s Goddess Chronicles series) is currently only available in hardback but the paperback will be out soon. Sadly there seems to be no ebook edition. Kirino is well known for writing `feminist noir’ crime fiction. `The Goddess Chronicle’ is her first Fantasy novel. It is partly based on a Japanese creation myth but it does include a murder mystery.

`The Goddess Chronicle’ tells the interlinked stories of a pair of human sisters, Namima and Kamikuu, and a pair of deities, the goddess Izanami and her husband, the god Izanagi. Namima describes how she grew up on the small and remote island of Umihebi. She belongs to the prestigious Sea-Snake clan and her grandmother is the Oracle priestess, the most important person on the island. Namima gradually realizes that she and her beautiful older sister are destined for very different fates. Kamikuu is given the finest of everything, because one day she will become the Oracle but Namima is constantly told that she is `impure’. Once Kamikuu goes to live in the sacred part of the island with her grandmother, Namima is made to carry food to her sister every day but is forbidden to speak to her. When the Oracle dies, sixteen year old Namima discovers the dark and lonely role that the custom of the island has decreed for her in the `precinct of the dead’. Namima, who is already pregnant by her secret lover, Mahito, a young man from an outcast family, refuses to accept her fate. She and Mahito flee the island together.

Shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Namima is bewildered to find herself being welcomed into the Realm of the Dead by Izanami, the Goddess of the Underworld. She enters the service of the goddess and watches Izanami choose a thousand people to die each day. Namima learns that Izanami was once gloriously happy with her husband, Izanagi. She was the first goddess to take human form and in that form she died giving birth to a fiery child. Izanagi was grief-stricken and came to rescue his wife from death but when he saw her decomposing body, he was overcome by repulsion and sealed her into the Underworld. Now Izanagi roams the world in the guise of a handsome nobleman, siring children, while Izanami is consumed by her hatred for him. Namima longs to find out why she herself died and what has happened to her daughter. Izanami warns her that this knowledge won’t bring her peace but Namima is allowed to go on a brief visit to Umihebi in the form of a wasp. What she discovers, causes Namima even more pain and her presence among the living will have terrible consequences….

The claustrophobic island setting is one of the reasons I can’t forget this book. Kirino paints vivid word-pictures of this tear-drop shaped island with its snake-infested seas, glittering white beaches, dramatic cliffs, and spiny thickets of pandan trees. Umihebi is a place of great beauty but few natural resources. It can barely support human life. With the care of an anthropologist, Kirino has created a plausible society of people living on the edge. Remote from mainland Japan, and constantly battling for survival, the islanders have developed their own ways. The men go on fishing and trading expeditions which can last months or even years, while the women run the island under the guidance of the Oracle and her designated heiress. One of the most shocking aspects of the story is that while the ordinary islanders are near starvation, Kamikuu is nourished on delectable treats such as sea-serpent egg soup, steamed red rice and star-fruit. It is Namima’s task to take the daily feast to her sister and throw any food that is left over a cliff. When she questions this waste of precious resources, Namima is told by her mother, `It’s hard for you to understand, but on our island everything is already decided. Yang is always followed by yin.’ The sisters are destined to represent these dual forces of nature. Kamikuu is yang – light, warmth and life, while Namima is yin – dark, coldness and death.

Namima eventually decides to assert her individuality and break the cruel customs of her culture. In a European or American novel this would undoubtedly be shown as the right and heroic thing to do. Since this is a subtle  Japanese novel, things aren’ t quite  so clear-cut. On an emotional level, the author makes you sympathise with Namima every step of the way, but she doesn’t let you forget the group-oriented point of view of Namima’s mother who argues that `…the island lives by our fate. We carry the future of the island. We keep everyone going.’ The plot shows the destruction caused by some of Namima and Mahito’s choices and what can happen if the natural  balance between life and death is disrupted. The other yin and yang pair are the deities Izanami and Izanagi. Their quarrel has artificially separated death and life. If there is one thing that this story makes clear, it is that you can’t expect either life or death to be fair, especially if you are female. The magnificently vengeful Izanami points out that `it is always the woman who dies’. `The Goddess Chronicle’ is a true horror story in that it deals with the universal horror of corpses and the terrifying thought that we are all trapped in decaying bodies.

Izanami can take no pleasure in the renewal of life and when we finally meet the charismatic Izanagi, he seems equally cursed. He has never come to terms with the reality of death or been humanised by genuine grief for the countless women he loves and leaves. In the course of the novel Izanagi does begin to change. Both the goddess and her ‘priestess of darkness’ Namima are given the chance to forgive the males who have wronged them so deeply. Only by letting go of earthly desires, such as the bitter desire for revenge, can they reach a more peaceful plane of existence. Is peace worth the price? This is a Japanese novel, so don’t expect happy endings all round but there are glimmers of hope. What you can expect, is a beautifully written story which makes you shudder and makes you think. I’ll be back when my health allows….