Confessions: A Novel by Kanae Minato is an #OwnVoices Japanese, psychological thriller novel that I have been eager to read because of how promising the premise seemed to me. After sitting down and going through it for approximately three to four days, I can safely say that it is one of the best thrillers I have read all damn year, and also a testament to why I love Japanese literature so bloody much.
Confessions is about a middle-school teacher named Yūko, who breaks off her engagement due to an unplanned affliction. In the wake of that, her four-year-old daughter, Manami, is killed at the school where she works. Through various circumstances, Yūko learns that two of her own students were responsible for Manami’s death. Overwhelmed with grief and anguish, she hands in her resignation and has one final lesson to share with the class, specifically to the students involved in the killing, setting into motion a powerfully psychotic plot for vengeance.
There are so many things that took me pleasantly by surprise with Confessions. From the strong themes pertaining to dysfunctional relationships to strict societal perceptions on the “ideal” Japanese family to complex characters and issues of abandonment, and finally the utterly immobilising nature of grief and pleasure, which are explored as parallels in the book. The writing was enticingly smooth as it follows a sinuously sinister scheme into the darkest depths of the human psyche, especially where retribution is concerned. Then we have the mind-blowing twist that I honestly never fucking saw coming.
Let’s start with the cast because, honestly, they were the second-best facets of the reading experience. The book is told via first-person perspectives of the different characters—most of which are expressed in journal-like entries—starting with Yūko and then moving forth from there. I was sceptical about it originally, however, after I got to the third person’s entry, all of my reservations regarding this prose style had evaporated. It ended up making the narrative feel more precariously candid and taboo, contributing heavily to its devious charm.
When we get to the students involved in the killings, things really start to get twisted. We have Kid A and Kid B who are involved in Manami’s death, and they are a perfect parallel for one another in marvellously different explorations. For example, Kid A and B have seemingly perfect lives with a supportive family, a loving mother, and/or decent grades and academic renown. When Manami dies the feelings that fill them up are the complete opposite of one another, while simultaneously trekking on the same road towards destruction. What Kid A goes through in the aftermath in comparison to Kid B’s reaction and responses worked to balance out and then further highlight the innate differences in the two students’ personalities as well as their views on culpability and excitement.
This concept can be an extremely difficult one to construct, particularly in revenge stories, due to how convoluted it can become if not executed well. Some books I have read usually lose their end goal somewhere along the way because there are far too many parallels without ever truly connecting, or instead of creating connections it’s just a regurgitation of the same thing with fresher, fancier vernacular. Not only is Confessions beautifully written, it also worked to splendidly slide into my brain in such an insidiously unexpected manner, that I didn’t even realise I had become so emotionally invested in what was happening with them until I felt my skin crawling with discomfort.
The evocative element of the narrative is astounding. When I first begin reading, I am reading from Yūko’s point-of-view as she’s speaking to the whole class on her last day. While that can be a bit confounding starting out, it soon becomes irresistibly alluring with the changes in her tone and attitude. The first reactions that were pulled out of me were of an unhealthy curiosity to know more about her most intimate emotional scars. Followed by a level of shock, then anger, and rounded right back to creepy curiosity mode. The further I delved into the pages of Confessions, and the more characters I encountered, the more my body began to have physical responses, such as the little hairs on the back of my neck standing on end, or the chills that tingled down my spine, and eventually the sensation of my skin crawling with an almost tangible uneasiness. It had quite literally gotten into my head and began to have a psychological impact on me. It was fucking brilliant and unlike any thriller experience I’ve ever had. Chalk it up to the fact that we’re dealing mostly with kids if you’d like, but I’m putting my money on the writing talents of this fantastic author.
The intellective aspects of the narrative, however, are my absolute favourite. Remember how I mentioned above the characters were my number two? Well, the psychological stuff as it pertains to plot is definitely my number one. When titbits of Yūko’s revenge scheme are revealed, they are shocking, to say the least; disparate to most unfathomable ways to punish people. Yet, as I kept learning about Kid A and Kid B, their realities versus their outwardly presented façades, that was when I was introduced to the scope of what Yūko had accomplished. It is cleverly multi-layered and incredibly slow-burning. The exploration of how the “home life,” or “family life” can impact kids growing up is at the centre of everything, and it really works to illustrate that first impressions are completely foolhardy, as much as the preconceived notion of happy-go-lucky familial foundations, which may include having two parents, no parents, parents who are there in name only, sibling rivalries—whatever.
All in all, I highly recommend Confessions to all readers that enjoy tightly crafted psychological thrillers, who also don’t mind reading about middle-school aged kids undergoing some seriously fucked-up and disturbing experiences. It is a highly contemplative, lithely ominous, psychologically provocative read that should not be missed at all.