Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura is an #OwnVoices Japanese psychological crime thriller novel about a young writer who arrives at a prison to interview a man convicted of burning two women alive. The suspect, a renown photographer named Kiharazaka, has a sensationally disturbing portfolio with an acute obsessive quality surrounding each subject. As the writer learns more about Kiharazaka, he begins to understand that the crime is far more complicated than he ever thought possible.
Last Winter, We Parted is the quintessence of a psychological thriller. It is crafted around a number of mental health illnesses, explores the differing levels of obsession, and homes in on the more dangerous sides of aesthetics. Coupled with grisly murders, an interesting prose style, and altering perspectives, you cannot help but get chills and a sensational air of discomfort while reading—vital facets in an all-encompassing psychological thriller experience.
As I mentioned earlier, the key to making Last Winter, We Parted so bloody psychological are the conditions that it explores in dark and twisted ways. One of the more prominent conditions that we see represented in the novel is Borderline Personality Disorder, specifically with an aspect called “The Chameleon Effect,” which when coupled with sociopathic behavioural patterns makes for a terribly creepy protagonist. The condition is revealed to the reader in a plodding sense with altering perspectives that questions the very disposition of “identity” and if our personalities are ever truly our own, or just bits and pieces stolen from people that we wish we could be. There were multiple instances where I had to place the book down for a second and ponder these inquisitive moments because they did an excellent job of getting inside of my head, to the point where I couldn’t help myself. The very contemplative nature of what it means to be an individual is astoundingly brilliant, and oft times neurotic.
Obsession is also something that stems from phobias, or fear. For example, a person may get obsessed with whom they are infatuated for fear of never being noticed, or never having their feelings reciprocated. That obsessiveness than can lead them to kill the object of their focus so as to not lose them to someone else. That is an extreme example. Another simpler example are basic every-day phobias. Spiders terrify the living hell out of me to the point that I cannot even be around the smallest spider. Yet, I am obsessed with learning more about them. I cannot take my eyes off the screen when I come across a picture or video of one. My spine will be tingling with anxiety and paranoia the entire time, with my skin crawling, nevertheless, I will continue to gawk at it with an unhealthy interest. This novel takes that notion of fear and obsession and presents it to us in an almost surreal means.
The characteristics that make it so dreamlike are the same ones that make it so realistic. In the novel, one of the characters becomes obsessed with protecting his disabled girlfriend. I won’t name the character or the disability because they play to the psychological effects of the reading experience and plot, but his inherent inability to separate himself from her and to see her as an independent person, regardless of her condition, turns him into this monster. It stems from love and compassion, and the fear of seeing her get hurt by something that would have ultimately been prevented. All of the interactions between them and the revelations of his thought processes that go into his erratic behaviour came off as unreal to me for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t understand how a person can allow themselves to become so fanatical with elements that feel like common sense to me. Secondly, I recognised this type of behaviour within myself—making it all the more real and creepier—in different aspects than the one described.
Oft times the patterns or actions that we read about or see on television that creep us out the most, the ones that blow our minds with how impossible they are, are the very things that we as humans are most capable of doing. However, accepting that we have this potential and going further to see that potentiality inside of ourselves as people, is fucking terrifying. That is the core of Last Winter, We Parted.
I stated earlier that the book is told via multiple perspectives, which is a utilisation of the polyphony prose style. I will admit that initially the changing of voices can be a bit disorienting and out-of-place, more so because they are from unnamed views. Once or twice I nearly DNF’d the novel. Yet, after I reached a critical plot point, about one-third of the way through, I started to understand that these variations were part of the psychological effects the author was going for and I was completely hooked afterwards. It is, in fact, a spectacular ploy of mind-fuckery that I honestly never seem to get from any other types of psychological genres aside from those in Japanese literature. These point-of-views are all woven into one another in a complex web of deceit that, if I wasn’t paying attention to the smallest of details, would have been easy to miss on my first time reading through the novel. When I reached the conclusion and everything was revealed, it startled me in waves at the most random of times, such as while I was grocery shopping and one of the scenes came barging back into my mind. I began to ponder how this specific perspective really co-related to one of the climactic events and I was stunned to silence; impressed by the sheer brilliance of it.
Due to the way that it is crafted, the story is expressed in a gradual manner, making it a bit challenging to stay focused on the content for extended periods of time, but simultaneously, the essence of the crime and Kiharazaka’s eccentricities make the narrative so bloody compelling that in the end it was nigh impossible for me to walk away.
All in all, I highly recommend Last Winter, We Parted, especially if you enjoy psychologically fucked-up crime thrillers that is far more about the characters than the actual crimes committed. Nakamura definitely understands what a thriller is supposed to entail and is a fabulous contributor to the genre. But know this: this book is not for every reader. Fans of Yōko Ogawa’s Revenge, and people who like Osamu Dazai and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa will enjoy the content of this book far more than folks who prefer fast-paced, action heavy reads. It is an intelligent and profoundly pensive sort of book. I would not recommend this to impatient or moody readers, and I definitely would not recommend this as a first-time Japanese literature novel. That being said, if you want deep-rooted analyses of the darker parts of psychology, obsession, and identity crises, then give Last Winter, We Parted a try.