Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Tokyo Year Zero, David Peace

Vintage Crime, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-27650-6. 343 pages.

I read this book six months ago and have been trying to review it ever since. I had to get it behind me so, incoherent as it might be, here goes.

Tokyo Year Zero begins on the day of the Japanese surrender - "For the hour is zero; the Year Zero - Tokyo Year Zero". The naked body of a female is found and Inspector Minami is one of the detectives called in to investigate. The case falls under the military and his involvement stops there.

A year later the remains of two young women are found in a park. One is found nude. Only bones and clothing remain of the other. Since there is no obvious connection because of the length of the time the bodies have been there, Minami's team (identified as Room #2) is assigned the investigation of the skeletal remains and Room #1 gets the recent body.

The investigation gets underway against the backdrop of a city in ruins, horrible living conditions for most of the population, corruption the anonymous presence of the Victors, purges removing men from public office (including police officers), war crime trials, gangsters, and the black market. Minami is willing to sell police information to a crime boss for help. Adding to his guilt he appears to have a wartime secret of his own.

The basics of the murder investigations - interviews, establishing links, identifying victims - are similar across cultures but the way the detectives are organized is a unique difference from what we see in the west. The detective teams are organized by rooms and Minami is in Room #2. When they are assigned the case of the skeletal remains they pack the the supplies they need into trunks and relocate to the police station from which they will operate until the case is solved. A banner identifying their room as Special Investigation Headquarters is displayed and Minami tells the men "this banner remains here until the case is closed with honour or until we are forced to retreat back to HQ in disgrace." There will be no time off until the investigation in concluded.

I was prepared for David Peace's style having read the Red Riding Quartet but the experience of reading Tokyo Year Zero is still akin to an assault on the senses. This isn't a negative point it is just that the reader has to be fully engaged and committed. The layout of the words on the page, the frantic pacing, the sound and tactile sensations conveyed in the repetitive motifs of running, scratching, and hammering can leave you stunned.

Ton-ton and gari-gari are two expressions used constantly throughout the book. Tot-ton means tap,tap, the sound of hammering and is constantly echoing in Minami's head. I read ton-ton as representing the absence of harmony in Minami's life and also as the sound of Tokyo rebuilding iteslf.

Gari-gari is the sound of scratching. Minami is constantly scratching, his body infested with lice. This is a vivid and unpleasant image, so much so that I found myself scratching my head in sympathy. As with ton-ton, I looked at gari-gari as representing something deeper that a lack of hygiene. Perhaps he is trying to scrape away his guilt as a survivor or his actions in the army.

This is the first book in a trilogy. The second is titled Occupied City and is due out in August 2009. The final book is tentatively titled Tokyo Regained.

I did like this book but I would be reluctant to casually recommend it. It is slow paced and does require full attention to keep track of what is happening but it is a vivid look at post-war Japan and an interesting police procedural. I will be reading the rest of the trilogy.

I am including links to more reviews than I would normally because of the complexity of describing this book.

Blog reviews
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Ready When Your Are, C.B.
The Book Geeks
Booked Out
Complete Review

Media Reviews
The Guardian
The Independent A not so glowing review.
Audio review from NPR, Tokyo Year Zero Gets Under Readers' Skin