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by Mo Hayder
Bantam, May 2004
409 pages
ISBN: 0593049691

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The author of BIRDMAN and THE TREATMENT has produced yet another gruesome masterpiece, this time set in Tokyo. Although admitting to coming from an academic family, Mo Hayder left school at the age of 15. This amazing author now teaches creative writing, having earned her MA in the meantime. Hayder uses her knowledge of the Tokyo bar scene in her latest opus -- she worked as a barmaid during her non-academic years -- so one can only assume that what she portrays in this book carries the seal of authenticity.

The prologue contains typical Hayder gore. The action is in December 1937 at the time of the Japanese invasion of Nanking. A young Chinese murders a Japanese photographer, who is recording the incredible cruelty of the invaders, in order to take possession of the man's film.

From Nanking in the past, the action jumps forward to Tokyo of 1990. An English woman appears at the door of Chinese academic Shi Chongming, seeking a film that he is reputed to have in his possession. She has learned of the atrocities committed in Nanking, read about them in a book she found in her parents' house, and wishes to validate her sanity as everyone has denied the existence of both book and specific atrocities.

Afraid and exasperated, Shi Chongming puts her off by saying he will call her in a week to discuss his knowledge. The unnamed heroine (known only as Grey, the description given her in a psychiatric institution, or, later in the narrative, 'weirdo') departs and seeks a place to live with Jason, who has accosted her while she was sleeping in a park.

Jason lives, together with two Russian girls, in a vast, rambling house. He and the girls ensure Grey finds employment in a Marilyn Monroe theme bar, Some Like It Hot, where they are employed by Mama Strawberry. Grey's obsession with Japanese atrocities in Nanking (the reason for which is not given until the ultimate chapter of the novel) helps her to become a success in the bar.

The 1937 narrative tells the story of the young Shi Chongming, a modern, enlightened man, an academic even then, who is somewhat ashamed of the superstitions honoured by both his wife and his parents. His wife wishes to flee Nanking ahead of the invaders, in order to return to their village, but Shi Chongming knows the Japanese are civilised and would not harm refugee civilians.

In 1990, Grey encounters elderly criminal yakuza boss Fuyuki. He is a welcome and honoured guest at the bar who takes a liking to Grey. She, Jason and the Russian girls are taken, along with other bar girls, as guests to parties held at the home of Fuyuki. Despite their fear of the reputed murderer, Fuyuki's nurse Ogawa, Jason is fascinated by the masculine-seeming woman and Grey seeks to discover the mystery ingredient of the potion which allegedly keeps Fuyuki healthy.

There is no denying the research Hayder has done on the Nanking invasion nor her knowledge of modern Tokyo. There is also no denying that this author is an extremely talented writer. Her art brings her scenes to life, more's the pity. I admire the writing but, unfortunately, wish I could drive its content from my memory!

In her earlier work, Hayder has demonstrated both her talent and her attraction to the cruel and unusual. Both are readily apparent in TOKYO. The primary theme is broadly hinted at well before it is specifically detailed for the reader. It is left until the conclusion of the work before all the threads are drawn together in the nightmarish drama prior to Grey's revelations to Shi Chongming -- and his to her.

Mo Hayder is a mistress of both characterisation and action. I am at once fascinated and repelled by her writing. She thoroughly deserves all the praise she has received for her writing and one trusts will continue on her award-winning way in the future -- minus, perhaps, quite so much gore!

Reviewed by Denise Wels Pickles, April 2004

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