Book Review: Tokyo (Mo Hayder)

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

 

***SPOILER ALERT***

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.

Book Review: Carrie (Stephen King)

This is Stephen King’s first published novel and reading it now, it’s easy to see how he burst on the horror scene like a new force. Like James Herbert and The Rats, King also started with a particularly nasty but real part of life, and then took it to an even darker level.

In the case of Carrie, the issue that was being dealt with was school bullying. It tells the story of Carrie White, an overweight, plain-looking girl with a overbearing religious mother. Because she stands out, in terms of her strange clothes and naivety, she is the victim of relentless teasing. The twist, which King introduces early on, is that Carrie has telekinetic powers – she can move objects using her mind alone.

To make this more believable, interspersed regularly throughout the book are excerpts from various books, news articles and scientific journals – all analysing, several years later, the Carrie White situation. At first these excerpts are a bit strange, because they keep interrupting the narrative, but they’re cleverly placed. As the story continues, the “non-fiction” excerpts start to discuss an event known simply as “Prom Night”. You’re not sure exactly what happened on Prom Night, but you realise very quickly that it wasn’t good.

And so the novel starts to build up a sense of impending doom which only intensifies as the story heads toward the Prom Night. I must confess that I did kind of have a heads up on this because for years, I’ve seen the image on DVD covers of Sissy Spacek covered in blood, with a raging fire in the background and heard something about a prom night going disastrously wrong.

But still, nothing quite prepares you for how expertly King pulls off the Prom Night. It is indeed the horrific finale to everything he has been preparing you for. But what makes it so horrific is that, at all times, we are clear that what brought this situation on is “man’s inhumanity to man” – both that of Carrie’s sadistically religious mother and the viciousness of her schoolmates. Especially poignant, I thought, were those people who sat on the sidelines, wondering if they could have done anything different to make a difference in this girl’s life and avoided the disaster that occurred.

For me, it was a clear reminder that the true horrors in life are sadly not things that writers dream up – they’re real events that occur to people around us all the time. Are there Carrie Whites in your life?

4 ½ out of 5.

 

And Then There were None – Epilogue

Just so there’s no misunderstandings, this post is on the epilogue, the next post tomorrow is on a mysterious “letter found in a bottle”.

In some ways, this chapter is a bit of a nod to Christie’s normal detective novels, where the police come in and try to sort out the crime. And maybe if Hercule Poirot was on hand or Miss Marple, they’d have a better chance.

But they’re coming up with nothing. We’re now enlightened about the fascinating back story about why the boat never came to rescue the 10 during the week, the involvement of Isaac Morris (the Jewish gentleman referenced back in Chapter 1, if you remember three weeks ago) and a little bit more background on our characters. (Though obviously our killer knew more about their back stories than the police were able to uncover.)

So in some ways, this chapter just serves to reiterate the mystery and deal with any final theories that people might have. (I like the bit best where they’re trying to work out how the last three could have died.) And who doesn’t feel creeped out by the chair below Vera’s body being placed neatly back against the wall?

Without a doubt, U N Owen is the 1930s precursor to Keyser Soze.

And sometime after this investigation was closed – we’re not sure how long – a boat comes across a bottle floating in the water with a letter in it. That letter, which we’ll read tomorrow, contains the final missing pieces of information that shed light on what took place on Indian Island . . .

See you tomorrow!

And Then There Were None (10 Dead; 0 Alive)

In many ways, the best thing to come out of this novel getting renamed as And Then There Were None is that it sets up a promise that – staggeringly – gets delivered in the final chapter.

We could believe, when it just came down to Vera and Lombard (why does he always get referred to by his last name, but she always gets referred to by her first?) that Lombard was it. Like Vera, we instantly see the wolf snarl and the cunning as the mark of a man who could cold-bloodedly pick off eight people one by one.

But then – the magnificent twist: the countdown goes down to zero. I remember I read this novel out loud to my sister when I was a teenager and at the time, none of us knew how it was going to end. And we hit this chapter, and it really just set my teenage brain reeling.

What on earth happened here? Did I really read what I thought I read?

For my money, it’s one of the greatest “What the…?” moments in storytelling history. The rug has been completely ripped out from under us. We know what we’ve witnessed – but we understand none of it.

And it is in that state of confusion, that Agatha Christie rolls out the Epilogue. I’ll see you tomorrow night for that one …

And Then There Were None – Chapter 15 (8 Dead; 2 Alive)

Decided to change the rules a bit. I’m going to blog about Chapter 15, and then after that Chapter 16 (so you can read both chapters today).

I’ll do the Epilogue (the first part of it) and that will just leave us with the final section to read on Sunday.

So, anyway, here we are – almost as if knowing that Dan would raise the red herring theory, it’s dealt with in the first few pages by Vera. Is Armstrong dead or alive? It would stand to reason that if this were the red herring death, that he would still be alive.

It’s also the moment where I wish I was directing this, because I love the visual image – glorious sunshine, the three characters sitting outside on the grass or rocks overlooking the water. With the deathtrap of a house looming on the horizon. . . .

However, things move very quickly – and all because Blore decided he needed some lunch. I won’t spell it out – you’ve either read it or you haven’t, but needless to say our fourth and third Indian/soldier/nameless racial stereotype are dealt with in one hit, we find out that the red herring perhaps had more to do with fish than we thought, and everybody wants to read Chapter 16.

So, without further ado, I’ll quickly write up the post for that chapter…

And Then There Were None – Chapter 14 (6/7 Dead?; 3/4 Alive?)

Now all bets are off. Is it one of the remaining four? Is there someone else on the island? If it’s one of the four, who can it be? If it’s someone else, why can’t they seem to find them? It’s all going crazy.

We also get another look into the back story of the characters, especially Vera, and we realise that she actually was quite callous in killing off young Cyril. And up till now has been very good at hiding the truth of how evil she is. But does that make her evil enough to engineer this?

Blore seems scared out of his mind, but if Dan’s theory is correct – the killer may not realise what he’s doing. Lombard says he’s a bit rattled – but rattled by how close he is to being murdered – or by how close he is to being unmasked as the killer.

And then, of course, there is the doctor – but he’s not in this chapter. We’re left with only three Indian boy statues, which would indicate that he’s dead.

But there’s no body.

And as Dan will be the first to point out, if I don’t:

Four little Indian boys, going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

So on that rather ambiguous note, I’ll bid you goodbye until tomorrow.

And Then There Were None – Chapter 13 (6 Dead; 4 Alive)

Now this chapter is where the cinematic potential of this story to be redone as a really scary slasher flick comes to the fore.

I love the levels of paranoia in this chapter – five people just sitting watching one another’s every move, checking that the drinks aren’t tampered with.

And then, despite all that, they’re still outsmarted by our very clever killer. Actually, with the whole costume thing – all the missing objects of the last few chapters now being revealed – I’d say a very clever, very twisted killer.

Hang in there, folks . . . only a few days more.

Oh yeah, Dan, and they gave you all the inner thoughts of everyone while they were sitting in the lounge room as well . . .

And Then There Were None – Chapter 12 (5 Dead; 5 Alive)

Well, we’re at the halfway mark now, as another of our suspects bites the dust. Oddly enough, she was our chief suspect from yesterday. We’re now down to five. Unlike that other island serial killer show, having less suspects doesn’t at all make it clearer who is likely to be a killer. (But if you do watch that island show, you would have well and truly worked out the identity by then.)

I’m quite enjoying the character of the Judge, because having worked in the law courts, the way he speaks is characteristic of the way Judges deliver summings up or sentences: very deliberately, point by point, logical.

How else could he persuade everyone to submit to strip-searching?

Actually, while all their actions (locking up the drugs, hunting for the gun, etc) logically make sense, all of this is really about persuading you, the reader, of the rules of the game. It’s Agatha Christie’s equivalent of the conjurer showing you that there’s nothing up his sleeves.

There’s a house, five people, missing gun, drugs all locked up. We’re all clueless. That’s the situation.

See you tomorrow!

And Then There Were None – Chapter 11 (4 Dead; 6 Alive)

Well, without wasting any time, the week kicks off with our 4th victim. See, I was right about Rogers being crossed off the list of suspects.

The good thing is, it leaves us with a more manageable list of suspects:

– The corrupt detective Blore

– The devil-may-care adventurer Lombard

– The religiously severe Emily Brent

– The coldly logical Justice Wargrave

– The “access to all poisons” Dr Armstrong

– The guilt-ridden Vera Claythorne.

This is where we start to notice how 2D these characters are, as well. They just don’t seem to be overly phased by the whole thing. (e.g. Lombard’s amusement at Blore and thinking that he’d be likely to be bumped off because he has no imagination). In fact, if it was me, I think I’d be divvying up the cold food, sending everyone to their room, and not letting people come out until someone comes with a boat.

Either that, or I’d get everyone camped in the lounge room. But then, for sure, the murderer would stay awake longer than everyone else and kill everyone else while they were asleep.

I’m getting morbid, but despite everyone trying their best to eat breakfast calmly, there’s a heightened sense of craziness in the air. This is what I love about this particular novel. In a detective novel, the crime has been committed, so there’s no real tension – just the enjoyment of unravelling whodunnit. In this book, though, all the characters are playing for their lives, and if they don’t work out who’s behind it soon, they’ll be next.

Looking forward to tomorrow!

And Then There Were None – Chapter 10 (3 Dead; 7 Alive)

Sorry this was later than the scheduled 8pm – it took a bit longer to get my daughter to sleep than I thought.

Well, I’m sorry that there have only been two murders this week (thus leaving the lion’s share for the final week of our reading project), but hopefully that will make the last week that more quick and bloodthirsty…

I find this chapter doesn’t contribute to theories so much as just indicates how these suspects react to the stress of the whole thing. If it was me, I’d be freaking out, wanting to sit in the corner of a room, armed with a gun and various sharp firearms.

These characters react in different ways – we see Vera and Philip form themselves into a bit of a duo and the Judge and the Doctor do the same. Menawhile, Emily Brent retreats into her own mind and Rogers is just nervous.

However, of all of these, Rogers seems to be the only one I’d cross off the list of suspects because we seem him on his own and he’s trying to ensure that no more Indian statues get stolen.

Or is that just a red herring?

Guess we’ll all know next week – either way, we’ll all have our doors bolted for the weekend.