Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda is a radically bewildering but completely mesmeric and refreshingly original psychological thriller that is full of unpredictable twists and surprises.
Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is the first book I’ve read by Japanese author Riku Onda. I received a copy of the book for review in my latest shipment from Bitter Lemon Press. Since I very much enjoyed the only other crime novel by a Japanese author I’ve read, I was eager to read this one. Onda is certainly a talented and emotive writer, but I wasn’t as enamoured with the substance of the book as much as with the brilliantly elusive and bewildering and definitely unconventional form. This may not be the best book I’ve read this year, but it is certainly the most fascinating. Onda’s writing is stunning with strong character development and a story arc perfectly paced to produce suspense.
Set in Tokyo over the course of one night, Aki and Hiro have decided to be together one last time in their shared flat before parting. Their relationship has broken down after a mountain trek during which their guide died inexplicably. Now each believes the other to be a murderer and is determined to extract a confession before the night is over. Who is the murderer and what really happened on the mountain?
In the battle of wills between them, the chain of events leading up to this night is gradually revealed in a gripping psychological thriller that keeps the reader in suspense to the very end.
As the book unfolds, we meet its two narrators, Hiro and Aki, who are spending one last night together in the Tokyo apartment they have long shared. They are now set to move on with their lives separately. The movers have already taken nearly everything away, and the pair are using a suitcase as a table for their last meal and drinks shared together. Onda switches back and forth between the two narrators with each chapter, which permits us to see things from their respective points of view.
The initial impression we get is that the two were romantically involved, but have now drifted apart. But when we discover the bond between them that has been challenged as more past secrets come to light, we realize this isn’t a former couple spending one last night together hoping to gain closure over a failed romance. Hiro and Aki have something to talk over, one specific thing that they both want to understand. A year earlier, a man died, and each of them suspects the other killed him. During this last night spent together in the apartment they have shared, both now hope to persuade the other to admit to a murder. Onda uses a very effective set-up for a story as it provides attention-gripping tension from the very start.
As the story plays out, we realize the true nature of Aki and Hiro’s relationship and its history isn’t what we first assumed. Indeed, it’s far more complicated than a failed romance. Like peeling back the layers of an onion, Onda slowly reveals the hidden parts, leading us from one surprising discovery to the next. For example, we learn the dead man was a mountain tour guide that Aki and Hiro had hired for a hiking trip. On the hike, the guide suggested making an unplanned rest stop and had then fallen from a cliff edge to his death. While the authorities had ruled it an accident, Aki and Hiro were not together when the man fell, and each has reason to believe the other was responsible for the guide’s death. Things grow increasingly complicated as we learn the identity of the guide, and that Aki and Hiro booked the tour under assumed names, hoping to get this particular guide assigned to them.
The truth about Aki and Hiro and a death that may or may not have been a murder slowly emerges, step by step. The nature of the story shifts as each additional detail emerges. But it is soon clear that Aki and Hiro can’t escape from the past. At best, they can only hope to figure it out, both what happened to the guide a year earlier and some other things from much longer ago. In working it all out, they both discover considerably more than they bargained for.
This is a solid, suspenseful tale with plenty of clever twists and many unpredictable turns along the way. The imaginative presentation has almost a labyrinth-like quality, continually tempting us to believe we have worked out what’s really going on, only to learn we are wrong when we stand again and again before a blank wall after taking the wrong path.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher used for this review, which represents my own honest opinions.