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Book review: 『六番目の小夜子』 by Riku Onda

Introduction

Title: 『六番目の小夜子』 (ろくばんめの さよこ)
Author: Riku ONDA (恩田陸)
Published by 新潮文庫
339 pages

Riku Onda is a prolific author who won the Naoki Prize in 2017 for her novel 『蜜蜂と遠雷』.

『六番目の小夜子』 is her debut novel.

Review

『六番目の小夜子』 has overall positive reviews on Amazon, but it is hard for me to understand why… Maybe some reviews are from readers who love Riku Onda and enjoyed reading her debut novel, not as much for the book itself but as a pilgrimage to their favourite author’s starting point.

The setting of the story is a highschool and our protagonists are a bunch friends who go through their third and last year together. The story spans a whole year.

There is a mysterious tradition in this school, though… Once every three year, someone is chosen to incarnate “Sayoko”. Part of the mystery consists in guessing who is Sayoko and what exactly is her role.

The beginning of the book was very promising with the prologue explaining the rule of the wink murder game. It is a party game where a “murderer” and a “detective” are chosen. People then go on talking to each other and the “murderer” can wink at people to “kill” them. The victim waits a few seconds before fainting, and obviously, the detective has to find the murderer. Then the prologue says: 私達の学校のある『行事』は、ちょうどこのゲームに似ている。(…) 今、紹介したゲームの『犯人』にあたる者は、それでは『サヨコ』と呼ばれた。(p.8-9). I was so enthusiastic when I read this, I thought I was starting an exciting murder mystery. I cannot tell you what this Sayoko has to do in the novel, but I can tell you that: it is not going around killing people. I don’t understand why the prologue would make such a false advertisement. I cannot help but feeling deceived by it.

Overall, there is a lot of mystery surrounding the school tradition to choose a “Sayoko”, but in the end, it was much ado about nothing.

I also found strange that the novel went in different directions in terms of genre without really committing to any. It looks like a mystery novel, there are supernatural elements, some horror too and some romance elements among students. Towards the end, we end up with characters that are preoccupied by finding the truth behind this Sayoko thing and characters who are worried about who will go out with who before the end of the school year. I thought it was a strange mix.

Finally, as the story spans a whole year, there are jumps in time between each chapter. This is something that I am not a big fan of in general, but I found that it did not serve the story well in this particular novel. I constantly had the impression that the characters had moved forward when I hadn’t. When I felt a little involved in the story, there would be a jump in time and I would start to lose interest. One chapter in particular ends on a very dramatic event. Tension has built up, there is danger and suspense, but of all the sudden, we find ourselves months later and the aftermaths of the episode is told as a flashback. It was a weird feeling to be left in the middle of a dramatic scene and then realise that all the characters had moved on and didn’t care about it anymore.

The fact that the narration keeps changing its focus between the different protagonists also did not make me want to stick to the book. If I don’t particularly enjoy a story, the connection between me (as a reader) and the protagonist usually makes me want to continue to read. When the narration follows several characters, I don’t feel committed to one of them in particular, so there is not much left to keep me involved in the story.

Overall, I did not enjoy this book, even though I usually like school mysteries. This was a debut novel though, and I am interesting in reading other books by Riku Onda. I will certainly start with the Naoki prize winner 『蜜蜂と遠雷』.

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