Saturday, March 3, 2018

REVIEW: The Master Key (book) by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

The Master Key could be called a psychological story, or crime fiction. It's a Japanese novel in translation. I got my copy via interlibrary loan.


This is set in Tokyo, at the K Apartments for Ladies. I didn't write down enough of the mentions of exact years to be 100% sure, but the book's "present" is probably the late 1950s.

The K Apartments for Ladies were originally meant to help "Japanese women emancipate themselves" (17). All of the women who live there are unmarried. Men are only allowed into the building if they check in first, after which they're escorted to whichever apartment they plan to visit. All the rents are frozen at wartime levels, so it's a cheap place to live. In the book's present, the entire building is about to be moved four meters in order to make room for a road-widening project. This can supposedly be done without disturbing any of the building's residents, who have all opted to stay inside until the project is finished.

Togawa gives readers glimpses into the particular stories and secrets of several of the building residents. In every instance, the weight of their secrets either begins to overwhelm them as the date of the move nears, or there's a strong possibility that the move will force their secrets into the light. Some of the residents mentioned include: Chikako Ueda, who once worked with a male accomplice to bury a dead child in an unused communal bathroom in the building's basement; Toyoko Munekata, who is supposedly hard at work correcting her late husband's manuscripts; Noriko Ishiyama, who has taken to living like a mouse, existing off of others' scraps; Suwa Yatabe, a violin instructor; and Yoneko Kimura, a retired teacher who spends her days writing letters to every single one of her former students.

I heard about this via a list on Goodreads. Although it's been tagged as a mystery, it's not really a traditional mystery, and readers who approach it as one are likely to be disappointed. There are certainly plenty of crimes mentioned - kidnapping, murder, arson, theft - but it's only in the last half of the book or so that anything like sleuthing happens, as Yoneko investigates one of her fellow residents on behalf of a former student.

Even then (I'm trying to avoid spoilers), there is the issue of appearances and reality. Some readers may love the twists at the end, while others may feel like the author cheated. I fall somewhere in between. I admired the way Togawa set things up so that readers would expect that they were dealing with one set of rules when they were actually dealing with a completely different set. She managed this without, as far as I could tell, ever really lying to readers, although I suppose that could depend upon your definition of "lie."

That said, the revelation concerning one particular character really bugged me. It required the character to be completely and utterly bound up in the building, the residents, and all their stories, to the point that that was their personal story. My suspension of disbelief was severely strained. I also had trouble believing that this person could do everything they would have had to have done without anyone ever being the wiser.

I thought that Togawa was going to end the book with a few "realistically" loose threads, and I was fully prepared to be mad at her for that. Instead, she included a short epilogue that answered that last question and left me feeling absolutely furious at one of the characters, the only one who'd escaped the story completely unscathed. I'm actually angrier at that character than I am at the one who literally murdered another character.

I'm not really sure how I feel about this book. The structure was a bit strange, the timeline and characters weren't always easy to keep track of, I disliked a lot of the revelations in the chapter just before the epilogue, and there were parts that were ridiculous enough to make me wonder whether this could be considered a black comedy. Still, it was fascinating seeing characters' stories get tangled up together. I'd probably be willing to try another one of the author's works.

Additional Comments:

This translation seemed decent enough, although potentially a bit over-localized. I wonder, was the spirit medium really named "Thumbelina" in the original, or was that just the closest approximation the translator could come up with? Thumbelina was repeatedly described as being dressed in "a white robe with loose red trousers" (15) or something similar. I figured that she probably looked very much like a miko, not that there were translator's notes mentioning this (and the word miko was never used - the translator's choice, I'm guessing, because I doubt the original Japanese text would have gone out of its way to avoid using the word).

Names were almost always in Western order, given name first and then family name. I noticed one or two instances of the translator messing up and using the Japanese order, which unfortunately contributed a bit to my difficulty with keeping track of all the characters' names.

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