I like books set in Japan, I like contemporary stories that incorporate mythology and folklore, and I like writing that focuses on women’s experiences, so Natsuo Kirino’s The Goddess Chronicle, translated by Rebecca Copeland, was always going to be my kind of book. It’s the latest in the Canongate Myth Series, and it centres on the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanagi (written ‘Izanaki’ in the book). I’ve always been drawn to this particular myth, and especially to Izanami, the goddess of birth who has to die, who is trapped in the Land of the Dead by her husband Izanagi. You can feel her anger and sense of betrayal in her last words to her husband, shouted from the Underworld through the rock barrier that now separates them: she swears to him that she’ll kill a thousand of his people every day in retribution for her imprisonment, and he responds by telling her he’ll give life to fifteen hundred every day. She dies in childbirth, giving birth to Fire – she and her husband are both creator gods, but she is the one who pays the price for creating, and he gets to live on and create new beings without her. It always feels so horribly unfair.
Kirino’s story links this mythic injustice bock to the human world – to two sisters who live on a teardrop-shaped island to the far south-east of Yamato (an old name for Japan). Kamikuu has been chosen to serve the island as priestess of light, and our narrator, her younger sister Namima, must serve as priestess of darkness. Theirs is a claustrophobic society of ritual and hierarchy – the islanders barely cling to survival on their tiny, barren island, and observe all kinds of rituals and taboos in the hope of keeping the gods on their side and fending off starvation. In love and dreaming of another, freer life, Namima rebels and flees the island, but her lover betrays her and she finds herself trapped once more – this time in the Land of the Dead, a servant to Izanami. In the tale that follows, Namima recalls her former life, her island home and the circumstances of her betrayal, while Izanami tells her side of her own mythical story.
These intertwined stories are shot through with bitterness – both Izanami and Namima are treated so unfairly, both lack recourse to any kind of justice, and both are painfully aware of this. Nevertheless, this isn’t a depressing read – the whole book has a mythic feel which prevented me from identifying with the characters too viscerally (although, as you may have guessed, the book has a lot to say about the general unfairness of being a woman in the world, which is upsetting in a different way). In the end, actually, I found it oddly uplifting, though I’d be hard pressed to say why. Certainly there are no easy answers or reassuring wrap-ups at the end of the story. There’s a sense of female solidarity, true, but it’s muted at best. It left me feeling that, in the end, we’re all alone with our problems, and it’s up to us to deal with them as best we can. I guess that can be uplifting, though, in a way.
The Goddess Chronicle reads like a skilled blend of myth, novel and allegory. There were a few points where the mixture didn’t feel quite right and I had to make an effort to suspend my disbelief (particularly in the section describing Izanaki’s adventures in the world of men, which I felt was the weakest part of the book), but for the most part it works very well. Rebecca Copeland’s translation conveys this mythic aspect really nicely – there’s a formality to her language that reads like written folklore, like reading one of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or something. It makes for a story that feels simultaneously specific and universal, addressing Kirino’s favourite themes of murder, betrayal, revenge and female empowerment/disempowerment in a manner and genre completely different from the crime novels with which she made her name. It reminded me of a number of other books (Snake Ropes by Jess Richards, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, something by Angela Carter but I can’t quite put my finger on what) but still felt fresh and interesting – in fact I felt as if reading it deepened my understanding of those books, and vice versa. Now I’m finding myself craving more explorations of myths and folklore by contemporary authors – let me know if you can recommend any! Bonus points if they’re set anywhere in East Asia.