The lives of three women in Hanasaki, a fictitious small town on the Pacific coast of Japan, are traced for a little over a year in this insightful novel. The town is home to the largest factory operated domestically by Eight Seas Fisheries, one of Japan’s top processed food companies, but with production at the factory shrinking in recent years, the central business district has been hollowing out and is in dire need of revitalization. When an elderly tycoon in the neighboring town was murdered five years ago, the police zeroed in on an Eight Seas employee named Shibata as their prime suspect, but he has yet to be apprehended.
The three women on whom the story centers, all in their early thirties, represent different cross sections of the population in this company town. Nanako Dōba is a born-and-raised local girl who married a high-school classmate. Her husband Shūichi now works at Eight Seas, while she takes care of the family business he inherited?a Buddhist altar-goods shop located in the town’s “Hanasaki Utopia” shopping district. Mitsuki Aiba is married to Akihito, an elite-track manager at Eight Seas who was transferred to the local factory from the Tokyo office five years ago. It’s been two years since she and some other management wives living in company housing opened a used clothing and sundries shop called “Petite Angela” in the shopping district. The preserved-flower decorations Mitsuki began making as a hobby are now one of the store’s main draws. Sumire Hoshikawa is a potter without any connection to Eight Seas. After being out of touch for eight years, she moved in with her boyfriend from art college, Kengo Miyahara, when he called to say he was building a kiln and invited her to join him two years ago. Both Sumire and Kengo had once abandoned their dreams of making a living through their art, with Sumire finding a sales job at a cosmetics company and Kengo signing on at the Eight Seas factory, but by the time he called his old flame, Kengo had quit his job and acquired a house and workshop in Misaki (“Cape”) Town, a scenic resort area with holiday homes that had become something of an artists’ colony. With the exception of Kengo, none of the artists who moved to Misaki for the mild climate and spectacular views afforded by the high elevation are aware that they live where the body of a murdered man turned up five years earlier.
Kengo also runs a café in the Hanasaki shopping district, and he and the other artists from Misaki are spearheading an effort to revive the “Utopia Flower Festival” that was last held 15 years ago. It is when they are recruited to work on the organizing committee that the three women meet. Also playing an important role in events are Nanako’s first-grade daughter Kumika, who was hit by a car a year ago and is now wheelchair-bound, and Mitsuki’s fourth-grade daughter Sayako, who is close friends with Kumika and careful to look out for her. Mutual suspicions between local native and newcomer, or company person and “townie,” become stress points as the story unfolds, and the shifting sands of the women’s relationships are contrasted with the stable friendship between the two young girls. Two fires become focal points in the narrative.
The first blaze occurs at Kengo’s café during the festival, which draws larger-than-expected crowds. Sayako bravely rescues Kumika, but is left with a scar on her forehead. Fortunately, there are no other casualties. Then a story Sayako writes about the incident at school receives attention in the media, and it leads to Nanako, Mitsuki, and Sumire launching a campaign to raise funds for a wheelchair users support group. But in the insular, small-town environment, any activity that calls attention to itself is also a magnet for gossip and finger-pointing. When the women have mobile-phone straps made to sell as a fundraiser, Sumire, who is viewed as a complete outsider, is accused of capitalizing on Kumika’s disability for personal gain. Rumors also circulate that Kumika is actually able to walk, and is only pretending to need a wheelchair.
Later that same year, in early December, a fire breaks out at Sumire’s pottery workshop when she is away in Tokyo attending a college friend’s wedding. First, the two girls go missing, and their worried parents receive a call from a man claiming to have kidnapped them. In accordance with his instructions, they head for Misaki without contacting the police. When they arrive, Sumire’s home is in flames. Thinking she hears her daughter’s voice, Nanako pushes to the front of the crowd and calls Kumika’s name. Miraculously, the two girls appear from behind the house. They’d been caught in the fire but managed to escape with only a minor injury to Sayako. With her life in peril, Kumika has regained the use of her legs?her disability proves to have been psychogenic. The much-relieved Nanako wraps her in her arms.
This second fire was actually set by Sayako. She has long known her friend can walk because Kumika told her early on that she’s been keeping quiet for fear that her parents might start going at each other’s throats if they knew the truth. So when Miyahara approached her, she had gone along with the kidnapping stunt. She tells no one, but writes in her diary that the fire started when she was playing with matches.
Two weeks later, as the rubble is being cleared away, a skeleton is found beneath the workshop. It is identified as that of Shibata, the missing suspect in the five-year-old murder case, and Kengo is believed to be the one who buried him there. Shibata and he had had a falling out after murdering the old man and stealing the gold ingots in his possession. Believing that there are more ingots hidden somewhere in Hanasaki, Kengo has been quietly continuing his investigations ever since, and upon recently learning that Nanako knows something about them, he had carried out the kidnapping in hopes of forcing the secret out of her. Kengo, who has not been seen since the fire, is placed on the wanted list, and his partner Sumire has no choice but to leave town. Mitsuki also leaves town in conjunction with her husband’s appointment as manager of a factory in Vietnam.
Nanako’s fatalistic conclusion that the utopia so many yearn for and extol simply doesn’t exist serves as an underlying theme for the novel, yet even she can’t help thinking that things would be better if she could just get out of Hanasaki. Author Kanae Minato captures the pulse of a small regional town with compelling realism?its deep-seated insularity, dependency on a big corporation, the persistent barriers and prejudices among social classes, and so forth?presenting us with a vivid microcosm of contemporary Japan.