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Friday, 15 May 2015 00:12

Mentor's critique - Return to Hiroshima

Bob, I found it agonising to have to select an extract from your first 30 pages, because they introduce such compelling storylines and utterly distinctive characters—what to choose from your astonishing narrative? In the end I have let Mitsuko speak because her voice begins the novel. You have great gifts as a writer and, provided your complex plot holds up in Return to Hiroshima, I predict that you will be a great gift for the right publisher. That is, a publisher looking for the skill, panache and trenchant seriousness of a writer like Keigo Higashino, with whom I have no hesitation in comparing you.

You have quite a large cast of important characters in the novel: Mitsuko; police inspector Takeda; punk writer Reizo Shiga; young Xavier Douterloigne, returning to Hiroshima from Belgium to investigate his sister's death; German photographer Beate Becht; and possibly Yori the street girl ... and hovering behind them all is Mitsuko's monstrous father, the sinister figure known as Rokurobei.

You have also crammed it with vivid and disturbing events: in the first 30 pages we get pregnant Mitsuko's terrified escape from the ruined island where her father has kept her imprisoned all her life; the kidnap or murder of her newborn baby while she is under anaesthetic; the discovery of a hideously deformed dead baby beneath the Peace Monument in Hiroshima; and the murder by gas poisoning of security and police officers at the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo bank.

Whether you are presenting characters or events, you write with a cogency that tells us these are all linked by history: everything happening in the 'present' time of 1995 relates in some fateful way to the date on which Hiroshima was destroyed exactly fifty years before. With a chapter for each fairly short scene, you use the narrative technique of juxtaposition to allow one event or character to comment on another: for instance, the reader is bound to wonder, with horror, whether the dead baby under the monument (which you describe in excruciating detail!) might somehow be Mitsuko's own ...

It's a very effective technique but also very demanding on reader and author. To avoid feeling bombarded by events, the reader needs to feel strongly attached to one or more characters and avid to follow their story through the book. For this reader, you have already achieved a sympathy with Mitsuko and I sense that you will build one with Inspector Takeda, particularly when they begin to interact. Only you can gauge when it is necessary for your readers to get close to characters and when you can afford to distance, even alienate them.

The beauty of this technique in your hands is that it is congruent with your prose, which pulsates with extraordinary light. You link contrasting (even contradictory) words and ideas to create sentences charged with unexpected meaning. The effect is sometimes that of haiku: for instance, Mitsuko's extraordinary musing about her lost baby: The creature was tiny and kind. It understood. It forgave. It was a universe of comfort. For a small scrap of humanity to be present as a universe in its mother's mind is poignant and profound.

Your book is built on contrasts (for instance between harsh outward realities and inner tenderness) and your writing reflects these with haunting effect. The passage about Mitsuko's love of books is bound to strike other readers as it did me. What an electric conjunction of thought and feeling you provide in a single sentence about the island: It was a place that left you short of breath because of the secrecy it exuded.

Much of what you tell us in this book is confronting. It is also shot through with a silver thread of compassion. The message of your book seems to be that the past holds cruel secrets, and every return to Hiroshima reveals terrible facets of the truth that are still affecting Japan and the world. It's important to manage these contrasts and contradictions so that you can guide your reader through to the conclusion that means most to you.

Since this is translated from your language (Walloon?), I must make mention of the English translation, which positively shimmers. Translation is one of my interests and in my opinion Brian Doyle is to be congratulated for his beautiful rendition of your very distinctive prose. This is no doubt a first version and there are one or two phrases that you'll be revising. For instance, if Mitsuko cannot decipher the doctor's glance at the end of the extract, it would not be 'unambiguous'.

This is an ambitious novel. It's a police procedural, a haunting thriller and the philosophical exploration of a very dark side of human life. As anyone can see from this extract, it's also written by a virtuoso. I'm sure this novel is going places and I wish you a splendid journey with it.

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