After reading Hayder’s 2006 standalone novel, the grim tale of “Pig Island” which I described as “relentlessly seedy” I said that I would have to have another go at “Tokyo” to see why that worked so well and stood out from the crowd. It was my favourite read of 2009 . At the time I wrote in my Book Journal that it was “tense and pretty harrowing”, which it is, but will it survive the re-read challenge?
The answer to that is not fully but it is still significantly the best of the novels I have read so far by Hayder and I’m still sure that there are more first class novels from this author when she gets, for me, the balance right between light and shade. My main criticism of her is that the unrelenting tension and horror in her themes can be a little too much for this reader.
I think “Tokyo” is helped by adding a little glamour with the excitement and mystique of the Japanese setting. This lets a little more light into the proceedings- although in case you think Hayder may be getting soft with us this book links Japanese war atrocities with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Main character Grey arrives in Tokyo with little money but a heap of emotional baggage. A disturbed, obsessed young woman she is looking for information on a Japanese massacre in the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937. She believes a professor holds the final key to this obsession but finds him reluctant to talk. Without money options seem fairly limited until she meets Jason who is living in a large, abandoned property with two Russian girls- all of whom work in a club run by a Japanese Marilyn Monroe wannabe named Strawberry.
Grey’s quest to find the truth leads her very quickly into some difficult areas. Alongside this plot thread is the journal of Shi Changming, a survivor of the massacres. The tension is cranked up in both narratives as the atrocities of war and a search for the elixir of life in modern-day Tokyo overlap and the climax of both is undeniably horrific. Although I first read this 7 years ago I had managed to put much of this out of my mind. On re-read it is back again.
I liked the characterisation in this novel. We piece together Grey’s back story throughout the plot, Jason and Strawberry are complex individuals and Shi Changming, the professor haunted by the events of 1937 is handled well. There’s a couple of cartoonish baddies but they are none the less horrific for that. I re-read this book with the thought of recommending it as one of my 100 Essential reads but on reflection it doesn’t quite make the grade. Perhaps it didn’t impress me as much as it did the first time round but this is still a powerfully told, harrowing tale which I will no doubt be keeping on my bookshelves.
Tokyo was published in 2004 by Bantam