If you have enough time, I’m going to recommend you sit down and read this one straight through. Natsuo Kirino is best known for her award-winning 1997 novel Out, which brought her fame in Japan and a considerable readership in the wider world as well, and although The Goddess Chronicles is not a mystery story, per se, I felt the same kind of insistent tug to read on that I get when reading mysteries. It’s not so much the feeling of dangling after a cliff-hanger as it is an almost sick fascination with finding out how next the bitter suffering of women doomed to darkness would manifest.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack for a moment: The Goddess Chronicles is a feminist perspective on the story of Izanami and Izanaki as told, experienced, and then seen through by Namima, the younger sister of the celebrated Oracle of a poverty-stricken island community and the priestess of darkness before she meets an untimely demise and finds herself trapped in the regret-filled underworld with a vengeful goddess. Namima learns the story of Izanami’s love of and betrayal by her husband Izanaki, and witnesses the final moments of their epic struggle, while she herself must come to terms with her own bitterness and regret set off confusingly by her love and concern for her sister and daughter, who are caught in a trap of theistic rigidity that Namima herself died escaping.
Everything in this novel is about opposites—life and death, love and hate, good and evil, yin and yang—but nothing is black and white. The Goddess Chronicles is proof positive that nothing in life (or death) has clean edges, no matter how hard we may try to impose them.
I recalled Izanami’s words: ‘Heaven and earth, man and woman, birth and death, day and night, light and dark, yang and yin. You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came. Whenever a single entity was paired with its opposite, the value of both became clear from the contrast—and the mutual association enriched the meaning of both.’
But once Izanami had died, the value of the pairing was lost and she became associated only with the dark half: earth, woman, death, night, dark yin and, yes, pollution. It might be presumptuous of me to suggest it, but what had happened to her was not unlike my own death. On Umihebi Island, I had been assigned the role of yin and was named ‘impure.’ I understood Izanami’s anger and bitterness.
The feminist aspect here is refreshing, especially coming from a country whose cultural policies and perceptions have oftentimes teetered on the edge of (and sometimes fallen into) misogyny. Kirino has touched on themes of misogyny in previous novels, including Grotesque and Real World, but it takes on a special kind of tortured poignancy here, where the female characters are simultaneously worshipped and denigrated: Namima, destined to be an important religious figure in her community but treated as an “impure” outsider, who will be required to commit suicide when her sister dies to preserve the balance of nature; Mahito’s mother, whose family’s entire future rides on her giving birth to a baby girl, who has no worth without it; and Izanami, who gave birth to the world and the gods and goddesses in it, who dies in childbirth and is then condemned by her own husband to live in hatred and bitterness in the underworld, killing when she was created to give life. The women in the novel have the tangible power, but they are influenced most strongly by their relationships to men, even to the point of destruction of other women or themselves. And be warned: if you’re looking for a truly satisfying, storybook ending, you’re out of luck. Kirino has a flawless way of injecting bitter reality into her mythic setting.
Something else that caught my attention about this book is its overall flow. I’m really picky about English translations of character languages, specifically how a translator decides to deal with the entanglement of specific kinds of wordplay with the nuances of the individual characters. I could write a book on the things I’ve seen translators do that make me want to hide my face in my hands and scream, but luckily I don’t have to, because translator Rebecca Copeland did everything right in what must have been a veritable minefield (so many gods and goddesses! so many symbolically important names! ah!) of choices. The explanations of names and places is carried off in such a way that none of the explanations of etymologies kicked me out of reading with a big, glaring, “HELLO I AM A TRANSLATION” sign flashing before my eyes. It’s rare that I find a translation from Japanese that leaves me as comfortable as this one, and I appreciate that immensely.
Kirino’s language and touch of reality is all that it takes to turn this book from the fairy tale it might have been into something which seems more like the biography of disillusioned women who find everything out the hard way. You will be repulsed by Izanami, or you will feel pity for her—you can do both. You will hate Izanaki, or you will mourn his losses yourself—is that so wrong? These characters are real enough, with life enough of their own, to transcend their mythical boundaries and become people about whom your opinions will shift and change as if you knew them personally. Like I said earlier, Kirino wants you to know that there are no clean edges in the world. How better to understand that than to experience it yourself?
This tale may be spun from my words but I speak for the goddess, the one who governs the Realm of the Dead. My words may be dyed red with anger; they may tremble in yearning after the living; but they are all, each and every one, spoken to express the sentiments of the goddess. As will become clear later, I am a priestess – a miko – and like the famous reciter of old Hieda no Are who entertains the goddess with ancient tale from the age of the gods, I too serve her with all my heart.
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