Mo Hayder is an English (female) thriller writer, who would have to be one of the strongest writers out there working in the thriller field. Her stories contain enough darkness to warrant the horror label, but they are written as thrillers – so would reach a wider audience. (Think Silence of the Lambs and you know what I mean.)
I’m not sure how she does it, but I find myself torn in two directions when reading any of her work. Her characterisations and narrative skill are so strong that I’m instantly sucked into the plot and get carried all the way through like a conveyor belt – and yet the places that such stories take me are so terrifying that by the end of the book, I can’t bear the thought of reading another one of her books.
It’s not just me. I lent this book to a friend of mine at work who is also into horror and is comment afterwards was, “I think I’ll go read some children’s books for the next two weeks.”
However, despite the fact it took me two hours to physically get my breathing back to normal after finishing it, I believe Tokyo is the best novel I’ve read all year so far – and is likely to be the best one all year as well. Hayder herself describes the story as a psychological thriller that combines Silence of the Lambs with Empire of the Sun with Lost in Translation. That probably sums it up.
A mysterious young woman named Grey (we’re never told whether this is her first name, last name, or not really her name at all) arrives in Tokyo with barely any money to spare. For some reason which we are not initially told about, she is obsessed with the Nanking massacre of 1937 – a true life event in which Japan invaded China and brutally massacred around 300,000 Chinese. Grey has reason to believe that there was a particular atrocity committed during the massacre that was filmed – but only one copy of this film exists – and it is in the hands of an aging Chinese professor working in Tokyo.
The professor refuses to share the film unless Grey does some spying for him on a certain Japanese gangster – so she gets drawn into the underworld of Tokyo, by working as a hostess in a high-class club. From here, the book develops a split narrative: Grey’s exploits in Tokyo, and the increasingly dangerous circles she moves in and, most fascinating of all, the Chinese professor’s narrative (taken from his diaries) of days in 1937 leading up to the invasion of the Japanese.
We already know in the Chinese story that something horrific is going to happen, and there’s a growing sense of menace in the Japanese story as well – so the two start to converge together like a giant pair of scissors till we arrive at one of the most truly disturbing and yet moving endings I have ever come across in a story.
All in all, this story is so horrific that I can think of very few of my friends that I would recommend it to. But if you can stomach it, it is a phenomenally well-constructed piece of fiction. I also find it fascinating from another perspective as well, but that involves some major spoilers on my part. You can either stop here or continue reading below if you’re interested.
5 out of 5
I have always believed that the best horror stories take things that are horrible in real life (things that we perhaps prefer not to talk about or think about) and then exaggerate them so we can’t ignore them. A classic example is the school bullying that takes place in Stephen King’s Carrie.
In the case of Tokyo, Mo Hayder has captured the horror of abortion – I’m not sure that she intends to make any political statement about it, but she certainly touches on it. As Grey’s back story unfolds we find out that, as a naive teenager, she became pregnant. Not knowing any better, she attempted to cut the baby out of her stomach – not to kill it, but because she thought it might live and be able to escape from her parents. But, as Hayder’s prose so painfully captures, there is a certain age when an unborn child is counted as a foetus (in which case, nothing will be done to save the child’s life) and when it is counted as a baby. And Grey’s child was extracted on the foetus side of that timeline, and so for the rest of her life, she is haunted by her dead daughter, wondering where she is, and if she will ever forgive her mother.
There are many, many stories related by mothers who have had abortions that describe the psychological trauma they have gone through years after the event – forever haunted by a child that they did not know. It doesn’t happen to every woman who undergoes an abortion, but it happens a lot more often than we hear about. I can’t help but think that the story of Grey – over-exaggerated with the horrific twist of her being the one that extracted her own child – is a nod to these stories.
Whatever the origin, it’s the aspect of the tale that will continue to haunt me the most.