Penance: a quiet, menacing tale of penance and murder

Penance book review

What is this about?: Four young girls are visited by the mother of their murdered friend and told she expects them to find her daughter’s murderer or do penance for not helping her the day a stranger came to them and convinced Emily to come with him.

What else is this about?: Taking places decades after the murder, this is a tale of how that one request shapes these young girls’ lives. But in the end, the question of their penance takes on new meaning by the end of the book.

Blurb

The tense, chilling story of four women haunted by a childhood trauma.

When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emily by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emily is found murdered hours later.

Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emily’s body was discovered. Asako, Emily’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.

Like Confessions, Kanae Minato’s award-winning, internationally bestselling debut, Penance is a dark and voice-driven tale of revenge and psychological trauma that will leave readers breathless.

Stars: 4/5

This is a book made up of five different first-person POVs, five different stories of the aftermath of Emily’s murder. It’s about how these four young girls traumatised by the event, and wracked by their own guilt, before Asako, Emily’s mother, mired in her own grief compounds theirs tenfold.

There’s a wealth of Japanese family culture hierarchies in this, I don’t feel I know enough about to comment on. But I will say, it’s easy to get lost in thinking of these scenes through a Western lens and it took me a while not to do that. For that, I grew in sympathy for these girls who became these women consumed by guilt.

Four young girls, a murder victim and the plot of this book

As I mentioned above, this book is written from the POV of young women, in very different situations in their bits of the book — but each are writing letters or talking to Asako at the moment of their confessions in their respective situations.

They are bound together because almost 15 years ago, they were the friends of her daughter — Emily. They were playing together in the school yard, when Emily was enticed away by a man and murdered. The thing to remember is they are from a small town where neither they nor the adults would have conceived of stranger danger within their town. But that is indeed what happened, and Emily dies.

Through the four POVs, we see how each girl experienced the murder, and indeed friendship with Emily. I found this so fascinating, because through the lens of an 8 year old, their futures will always be defined by this moment. They try very hard to go back to their lives, and not to let Emily’s death affect them, but then Asako asks them to visit her and tells them that she expects them to find the murderer or do penance for not helping Emily.

And from there, their fates are sealed.

We learn how their lives progressed, and how Emily’s murder and her mother’s request — order, threat — shaped their lives. It’s fascinating and compelling — and it’s also something that took me at least the first POV (Sae) to ger into and understand how this book was going to go. With each passing chapter, the menace grew and I was convinced that it was leading to something explosive, but…

The Ending 

The fifth POV gives us Asako’s POV, and through her Emily’s POV of the young girls and what their friendship meant to her. It’s fascinating because it upends everything you’ve assumed since the beginning, and resets the story entirely — in so many ways.

Kanae Minato‘s writing is superb, though I will say she is known in Japan for being the queen of iyamisu, which is an eww mystery, the kind that deal with the dark side of human nature, and there is plenty of that in this book.

Her writing is stark and brutal in it’s simplicity, which heightens the darkness she is exploring.

Whew.

13 Comments

  • Oooh Verushka, this sounds like my kinda read! Great review hon. You’ve definitely got me interested in reading it now.

    • Verushka says:

      I think you would, J. It’s such a great character piece, and it plays with perceptions and I was utterly completely captivated.

  • I’m not sure what it says about me but I’m always drawn to books that explore the dark side of human nature. The idea of the ending resetting the entire story also has me so curious. I’m glad this was a good read for you.

    • Verushka says:

      Heh, me too, Suzanne. The book plays with perceptions wonderfully, and by the end I had to rethink everything the other girls had said about what happened.

  • Jen Mullen says:

    The concept of the mother expecting the girls to find the murderer or do penance for her daughter’s death is intriguing. I’m also curious about the views from another cultural standpoint and from each of the young women and the mother. Penance sounds fascinating!

    • Verushka says:

      It was intriguing and disturbing, and utterly compelling. There was much that I thought wasn’t making sense in this novel until I realised this was part of Japanese culture in a very dark book. In think the author was just brilliant at manipulating the story in the different POVs and then again with the ending.

  • Ooo you made me want this…particularly how everything was upended!

  • I really loved this one! It’s fascinating to have all the different perspectives and how this one big event (and the mother’s “penance” request) shaped the rest of their lives. I’m glad you liked this too!

    -Lauren

  • I know it’s not a very popular opinion but I love books that have a lot of different POVs like this one. I’m really interested in reading this book now after reading your review!

    • Verushka says:

      I didn’t used to like books with different POVs, but with books like this? They totally make me appreciate them more.

  • Kelly says:

    Holy shit, that sounds incredible Verushka. Asako strikes me as a character looking for somewhere to place blame. I can understand the unbearable grief she continues to endure over her daughter’s death but the girls were only eight at the time, you wouldn’t trust other eight year old’s to take on the responsibility of an adult. This could be a difficult one for me to read because I already have preconceived notions about what a tyrant Emily’s mother is, to hold onto so much resentment for these women who were only young girls at the time. Brilliant review Verushka darling, I’m already hooked! ♡♡♡

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