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Book review: 『手紙』by Keigo HIGASHINO

It took me a long time to read it, but I finally finished the novel 『手紙』by Keigo HIGASHINO (東野圭吾)!

Reference: 『手紙』(てがみ), by 東野圭吾 (ひがしのけいご), published by 文春文庫 (ぶんしゅんぶんこ).

The story

「差別はね、当然なんだよ」

p317

This novel is not a detective novel, the only murder occurs in the prologue and there won’t be any police investigation afterwards. 『手紙』is about the aftermaths of the murder, and the story is tell from the point of view of the murderer’s brother.

Naoki is still in high-school when his older brother Tsuyoshi commits robbery and murder and is imprisoned. His first concern is money, for the two brothers have lost their parents, and Naoki is now alone to make his living. But in a society where discrimination is strong, Naoki will realise that his biggest problem is not the lack of money, but his connection to his brother.

In this novel, Keigo HIGASHINO addresses the problem of discrimination and depicts the way the society turns its back on anyone that has a connection to murder. 

My thoughts

To be honest, I didn’t like the book at first because I misjudged it. Something happens in the beginning that I found hard to believe (it is not something that really happens in real life) and that made me think that I was not reading the kind of book I expected. I expected a realistic depiction of the society and all of the sudden, it looked like I was reading “a hero is faced with adversity, but he meets someone that changes his life, and with hard work, courage and faith, he overcomes the obstacles and finds happiness” kind of story. I am totally okay with this kind of story by the way, but it is not what I wanted to read here.

But I completely misjudged the book, and it is a pity that I left it untouched for so long a time because of that. It is not at all a feel-good story that leads you towards an inevitable happy end and makes you feel that you can fulfill your dreams if you believe in yourself. On the contrary, reading 『手紙』made me sad and angry in turns, and I loved it for several reasons.

First of all, the topic chosen by Higashino is not something I have often read about or seen in films. The relatives of a murderer are the left over of detective fictions. They are useful to conduct interviews and help to define the suspect’s character, but once the culprit is arrested, nobody really cares about how they will go on with their life. Higashino devotes a whole novel to a character that would have been a minor or peripheral figure in a conventional detective story.

But the real force of the novel is that it overcomes the antagonism between the innocent victim and the discriminatory mass of ignorant people. Those who turn their back on him are not all unscrupulous and Naoki is far from being a saint. It is hard to take a side. You cannot help wondering what you would have done in this situation, how you would have reacted. 

Language level

While I cannot point a passage that was more difficult than the others, I still felt that 『手紙』was a tiny bit more challenging than other books by Higashino. I think that the reason might be the many changes of setting. The novel spans several years, and we follow Naoki in different places, different activities, different relationships. This means that every new environment has to be described, and the reader has to get used to it, which maybe adds to the difficulty of reading in Japanese.

Conclusion

If you are interested in novels that deal with social discrimination, you will find a lot to think about by reading 『手紙』. It certainly opened my eyes to a social problem I never really thought of before, but gave me no straight answers. While I recommend this book for its topic, I must say that it is not a lighthearted read!

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