A Fool’s Poison

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A Fool’s Poison
Author: Makoto Usami
Specifications: ISBN  978-4396342623
392 pages
10.6 x 15.4 cm / 4.2 x 6.1 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Shodensha Inc.
Tokyo, 2016
Awards: Mystery Writers of Japan Award, 2017
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


The story begins in the summer of 2015, at a luxurious eldercare facility overlooking the Pacific in Shimoda, a resort town on the tip of a peninsula southwest of Tokyo. Resident Yōko Nanba, 65, moved here a year ago after being diagnosed with osteonecrosis of the hip—though her condition does not yet significantly restrict her daily activities. Her husband of the same age, Yukio, is the owner and CEO of Nanbatex, a mid-sized textile company. He spends his weekdays in Tokyo and joins Yōko in Shimoda on the weekends. To all appearances, they are a wealthy industrialist and his wife living the good life, but as the narrative shifts among different time frames as far back as 1965, we learn that they have a dirty little secret: neither of them is who their official family registry says they are, and they are linked to the deaths of at least four men and women in the past.

The narrative quickly falls back to the spring of 1985. At an employment office in the Ueno district of Tokyo, a chance mix-up involving the job applications of two women who happen to have been born on the same day in 1949 results in Kimi Ishikawa and Yōko Kagawa becoming acquainted and starting a friendship. The murder-suicide of Yōko’s sister and her husband in the face of ballooning debts has left their four-year-old boy Tatsuya in Yōko’s charge, and she must find work to support him even as she tries to evade the sharks now coming after her for repayment of her sister’s obligations. Kimi, who has a steady job at a lawyer’s office but wants to find something new, makes use of her connections to get Yōko a position as live-in housekeeper for the wealthy Nanba family, owners of Nanbatex. Family head Hirokazu Nanba, a former science teacher whom everyone calls sensei, and the current Nanbatex CEO Yukio Nanba, both welcome Yōko and Tatsuo warmly, and Yōko feels as if she has finally found safe harbor. She is immensely grateful to Kimi. Nanbatex corporate attorney Yoshihiko Katō, who is also Kimi’s employer, negotiates with the shady creditors pursing Yōko and gets them to write off some of her sister’s debts, bringing the balance due down to a more manageable level. Then in the summer of 1986, Hirokazu dies of a sudden heart attack in his sleep, and not long after, Yōko and Katō die in a fiery car crash.

In Chapter 2, the narrative moves back even further, to 1965, and the story that appeared to be about Yōko abruptly turns its focus on two 16-year-olds, Nozomi (written with the same two kanji as Kimi) and Yūji, childhood friends who live in an impoverished district of northern Kyushu near a small coal mine that has been shuttered. Nozomi’s father is a survivor of the tragic mine explosion that killed more than 450 miners at the infamous Miike mine two years before, but the aftereffects of serious carbon-monoxide poisoning have left him unable to work, and he has taken to beating his two daughters and son. Unable to endure the grinding poverty of their life on welfare, Nozomi’s mother has abandoned the family, leaving Nozomi to look after her little brother and sister while also holding down the job she took at a food-processing plant after finishing ninth grade.

Yūji’s mother committed suicide shortly after he was born, and he was raised by an elderly woman of no family connection on the expectation that he would repay her with his labor. Since he did well in middle school, he is continuing his studies in a part-time high school program while working at an auto-repair shop. When Nozomi gets fired from her job for being falsely accused of stealing some meat, and then is nearly raped by her increasingly erratic father who apparently mistook her for her mother, she confides in Yūji that she is desperate to escape her helpless circumstances.

During the autumn festival in 1966, Yūji stabs former mine owner turned usurer Jōtarō Takenaka to death and makes off with his money. He also deals the final blow to Nozomi’s father, who had actually been first to attack Jōtarō, only to get stabbed by Jōtarō instead. Yūji is the product of Jōtarō raping a woman he had loaned money to, so Jōtarō is in fact his biological father. Yūji buries his father’s body and flees with Nozomi. Before leaving, Nozomi gives her little sister the money from Yūji and tells her to go to their aunt’s house with their little brother. She vows to herself that she will never return to this place, even to see her siblings.

Chapter 3 begins 11 years later, when the lawyer Katō appears before the two fugitives. In the 1960s, Katō had been a student activist, and he had also been involved in supporting the mineworkers’ union. He then chose to stay on in the area and work as an assistant to a photographer documenting the hardships of those living near shuttered mines. As it happened, when he was developing some film that his boss took on the night of the autumn festival, he spotted Yūji transporting Jōtarō’s lifeless body in the corner of one of the shots. He then verified his suspicions by digging up the body and had even found the murder weapon. It was after this that he left the mine and returned to Tokyo to become a lawyer. Meanwhile, Yūji and Nozomi were also working and studying in Tokyo—though while keeping the same two kanji, Nozomi had changed the reading of her name to Kimi. Threatened by Katō, the two become entangled in the unscrupulous lawyer’s scheme for taking over Nanbatex. Many years before, Hirokazu’s wife had been separated from the son she bore her first husband, and she has been trying to track him down. Katō now presents Yūji to her as Yukio.

In order to escape Katō’s hold over him, Yūji tampers with his brakes, but just as the lawyer is about to drive off, Yōko unexpectedly gets into the car and goes to her death with him. At this point, Kimi steps into Yōko’s shoes. In the final movement of the novel, Yukio Nanba is killed by Tatsuya, who has been working for him as an attorney while looking for his moment of revenge. Tatsuya alone has been witness to Yūji and Kimi’s entire plot.

Going back more than half a century, author Makoto Usami details with compelling immediacy the devastating effect that the closing of coal mines had on the communities that had grown up around them. In this superbly plotted work, she proves herself as one of Japan’s finest writers of “social school” suspense fiction today.