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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Tokyo Year Zero

David Peace

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To purchase Tokyo Year Zero

Title: Tokyo Year Zero
Author: David Peace
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 345 pages
Availability: Tokyo Year Zero - US
Tokyo Year Zero - UK
Tokyo Year Zero - Canada
Tokyo Année Zéro - France

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Our Assessment:

B+ : powerful, though tough to swallow

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 17/1/2008 Bruno Corty
Financial Times . 4/8/2007 Angel Gurria-Quintana
The Guardian . 11/8/2007 Ian Sansom
The Independent . 10/8/2007
The LA Times . 9/9/2007 Sarah Weinman
Le Monde . 24/1/2008 Raphaëlle Rérolle
New Statesman . 16/8/2007 Toby Lichtig
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/12/2007 Christopher Sorrentino
The Observer . 5/8/2007 Tim Adams
San Francisco Chronicle . 6/10/2007 John Freeman
The Spectator . 19/9/2007 Andrew Taylor
Sunday Times . 26/8/2007 John Dugdale
Sydney Morning Herald . 24/11/2007 Ed Wright
The Telegraph . 9/8/2007 Siddhartha Deb
The Telegraph . 30/8/2007 Matt Thorne
The Times . 1/9/2007 Giles Whittell
TLS . 7/9/2007 Henry Hitchings
The Village Voice . 18/9/2007 Alexander Nazaryan
The Washington Post . 14/9/2007 Carolyn See

  Review Consensus:

  Generally impressed by what Peace does and how he goes about it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Le style Peace épouse le sujet. À l'image de la ville et du 'héros', il est déchiré, fragmenté, éparpillé. Une expérience de lecture peu commune. Fascinante." - Bruno Corty, Le Figaro

  • "Tokyo Year Zero is powerful, exhausting and uncomfortable. It is a tribute to its author that the reader can be made to feel claustrophobic and itchy, somehow sullied, yet is unable to abandon the book. Peace has found a unique voice that is stylish and rough, at once direct and disorienting." - Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "It's as if Iain Sinclair had taken possession of the mind of Ian Rankin: the outcome is what one might call avant noir. (…) What ultimately makes Peace's books Peacefull, though, are not the plots or the research, but his distinctive, quirky verbal tics and tricks. Peace does not do laconic, the usual stuff of crime novels. He writes lyrically, making much use, for example, of repetition." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "At one level, this is an unrelenting portrait of Tokyo at the end of the Second World War, physically and mentally shattered by defeat. (…) Peace's portrait of a man breaking down is central to the novel and also the source of its problems; unreliable narrators are not uncommon but one who is quite possibly insane presents special difficulties. One of Peace's methods of conveying Minami's mental turmoil is a double narrative in which his inner thoughts appear in the text in italics. (…) These devices make the novel an arduous read, and also raise questions about what would be left if its unremitting feverishness and brutality were taken away. There is a laddishness about this story of defeat and disintegration which may appeal to some readers, but it left me longing for more subtle methods of narration." - Joan Smith, The Independent

  • "Tokyo Year Zero is Peace's most accessible work, the culmination of years of fine-tuning his idiosyncratic voice to its truest frequency. It is a book teeming with the harsh howls of damaged souls forced to live in a world seemingly populated by those already dead. (…) Mere plot summary and character trait listing, however, cannot do Tokyo Year Zero real justice. The book is more accurately described as a lengthy prose poem, its emotive power and accessibility gained from the use of repetition, distilled imagery that evokes all senses and the stacking of one-line paragraphs to focus the eye on single words (….) What we have here is not just a novel with voice, which is a natural gift honed into publishable shape, but also with rhythm, which must be learned and sharpened by the writer and is extraordinarily difficult to get right." - Sarah Weinman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The style is orchestral, composed of blocks and motifs. It can be irritating and lends itself well to skimming (not to mention parody). Then it seizes the reader, stamping its mark. We are left with a very keen sense of 1946 Tokyo and the mind of one of its victims. Unsubtly, improbably, Peace renders the person and the place. This is what literature is supposed to do. Tokyo Year Zero is also sustained by some well-paced, tightly constructed plotting." - Toby Lichtig, New Statesman

  • "(B)rilliant, perplexing, claustrophobic and ambiguous (.....) The atmosphere Peace creates, built through nightmarish repetition, keeps the reader off-balance. (...) There is constant oscillation between waking and dreaming, past and present, memory and fantasy. The resulting effect owes little to Raymond Chandler -- Peace’s masters would seem to be Dostoyevsky; postmodern collagists like William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker; and practitioners of the French nouveau roman like Alain Robbe-Grillet" - Christopher Sorrentino, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Peace uses truncated subject, verb, object sentences in repetitive rhythms to establish the claustrophobia of extreme states of mind. (…) To quote small chunks of Peace's writing, though, is to miss most of its intensive craft and appeal. (…) Peace weaves a thriller that is both a gory psychological whodunit and a meditation on the origins of modern Japan. The result is something dark and bloody, the tone lying somewhere between Kurosawa's Macbeth and the caricatures of the more violent manga cartoons. (…) Minami's voice is trapped in a continuous insomniac present tense, dogged by italicised flashbacks to the cruelties of his war and his growing fears that his violent past is somehow linked to the murders that he investigates." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "To read Tokyo Year Zero is to be dragged, dunked, and shoved headfirst through the muck of a ruined society -- slowly. Here is the rotten apricot smell of human flesh rotting. Here are the buzzing flies. Here is an entire society in shell shock. (…) Tokyo Year Zero seems like a graveyard thronged by zombies. The unfortunate result is that Minami, for all his memories, all his guilt, for all his authentic suffering, resembles a figure sketched entirely in shades of black. Peace's other characters, minus a mistress and a market's bullying strongman, are even less delineated on the page. Keeping their names straight is difficult. Caring about what they do is impossible. But in the end, this doesn't really matter. Because once this hellish locomotive of a book hooks onto its tracks it becomes difficult to hop off. Belching, stoked by corpses, syncopated by Peace's heedless repetitions, it powers into the heart of darkness of a country desensitized by war." - John Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The book’s intensity derives partly from the unrelieved grimness of its subject-matter and partly from its staccato, first-person, present-tense narrative. Dark and relentless, Tokyo Year Zero is not for the faint-hearted but it’s a considerable achievement." - Andrew Taylor, The Spectator

  • "The novel’s highly crafted verbal texture, however, makes the investigation (based on a real serial-killer case) hard to follow: the most literary of crime writers, Peace mimics his sleuth’s chaotic mental processes by using repeated motifs that include obsessive thoughts, snatches of pop songs and the sounds of scratching (gari-gari) and hammering (ton-ton). Many passages are closer to the TS Eliot of The Waste Land and The Hollow Men than to the average whodunnit. You sense that he would see his work being called "page-turning" as an insult. Peace, who has lived in Japan since 1994, brings postwar Tokyo brilliantly to life. But his distinctive technique (…) is stymied here because it depends on readers being familiar with the official version" - John Dugdale, Sunday Times

  • "(A) crime novel that stretches the barriers of the genre. (...) The strength of this novel is its evocation of the atmosphere of this period. Peace succeeds in bringing the deprivation, shame and desperation of postwar Japan to the page." - Ed Wright, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Minami is a compelling detective, relentless in his search for answers even as he exemplifies a culture of defeat. (…) In its use of the crime novel to capture a society in transition, Peace's writing resembles the dark, violent musings of James Ellroy. Yet even Ellroy's world contains lighter moments, flashes of camaraderie or erotic encounters that offer a relief from the beatings and the rapes. Peace offers something much darker in this book" - Siddhartha Deb, The Telegraph

  • "His first-person narration is constantly interrupted by a relentless internal monologue that gives the novel enormous momentum even when little is happening. As always, Peace has a strong sense of history and location, and as important as the investigation is his description of the state of Tokyo at this time, one year on from defeat by America. (…) It is hard to judge Tokyo Year Zero as a stand-alone work. It will probably only make sense as part of a triptych, as Peace once again deliberately challenges his readers with this modernist fragmented tale. Only when the sequence is complete will we know whether it was worth taking the ride." - Matt Thorne, The Telegraph

  • "His canvas is densely factual, but the novel is a feat of prodigious and intense imagination. Stylistically, it can be irritating, more Birtwistle than Britten (…), with constant interruptions from Minami in the form of an italicised interior monologue. But the time, the place, the smell and the sheer pity of defeat are brilliantly evoked. This is conviction fiction of a high order." - Giles Whittell, The Times

  • "Before all else, however, Tokyo Year Zero is a thriller, a modern police procedural in which the investigators are as entangled in wrongdoing as the criminals they pursue. (…)While quick-fire paragraphs and brisk exchanges of blunt dialogue are the norm, Peace also achieves passages of visionary unpleasantness. The result is a jittery, unsettling style, which demands some tolerance on the part of the reader." - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like Haruki Murakami, who has explored the effects of Japan's wartime atrocities in such novels as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Peace makes clear that his tortured characters are merely reflections of a society consumed by its own aggressive impulses. But while Murakami's fiction swoons with the cool rhythms of jazz, Peace recalls the feverish notes of a Bach fugue. (…) The tension of a narrative that aims to capture both personal dissolution and national tragedy is difficult to maintain, and the plot too often dwells on Minami's inner turmoil without much forward progress." - Alexander Nazaryan, The Village Voice

  • "Tokyo Year Zero has a lip-smacking pornographic feel to it. Guys who enjoy the glories of war won't cozy up to this thing -- too much pus and not enough heroism. Women will (or should!) be just plain grossed out. Perverts might like it, and judging from the Internet there's no shortage of them. But they'd have to be intelligent; Tokyo Year Zero is a difficult, demanding, literary novel. The trouble is, it's sick. And it likes its own sickness way too much." - Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tokyo Year Zero is a police procedural largely set about a year after the end of World War II. The novel is centred around Inspector Minami, the case(s) at hand the rape and murder of several young women. The mystery of the murders is of some interest, but what makes and breaks the book is the setting and the telling.
       A brief Prologue -- when a first body is also found -- is set on the day of the Japanese surrender, while the investigation into the other murders takes place in occupied Japan a year later, the police force decimated (and with constant rumours that more officers are going to be weeded out) and terrible conditions everywhere, with little money or food to be had. Peace evokes post-war Tokyo in all its misery very well, from the filth and smells to the terrible conditions -- the limited housing, the difficulties of getting around. There's little interaction with the occupying forces at Minami's level, but he does get to see the conditions in the 'International Palace', the giant bordello where "only the Victors are welcome" (which now lies almost dormant after MacArthur banned prostitution). The conditions the police work in are also well-presented, from the Japanese shows of deference (the constant bowing and apologising) to the seething antagonisms underneath. The role of the police is limited because the Americans are in charge, yet they're also subject to outright challenges and attacks from other foreigners who are bothered by their interference.
       Minami has his own issues: he's guilty about spending so little time with his wife and children, and not being able to provide properly for them. That hasn't stopped him from setting himself up with a mistress, though. And then there's his craving for Calmotin, a kind of sleeping pill, -- or really anything to dull the pain and offer some escape or respite from this horrible reality -- which leads him also to ask for help from criminal elements who want something in return.
       Minami's father was a policeman as well, which has benefitted his career, but the weight of his father's past also comes to bear on him. And there are the victims of the crimes, too, these young women brutally killed, which get to him as well. And even when they find someone who is at least partially responsible much remains veiled in darkness and confusion -- including the identity of one of the victims.
       Identity has become confused in these times; among the refrains found throughout the book is that:

     Now no one is who they say they are ...
     No one is who they seem to be ...
       Minami is also juggling a variety of roles, and keeping a lot to himself, the typical loner-detective with trust issues and who thinks he can handle things himself. Minami isn't particularly confident (and his hair goes gray during the investigation), but the only way he can manage is by trying to do all this himself. It does not work out particularly well, not even for him.
       For all its vivid evocation of a specific time and place, the real success of Tokyo Year Zero -- for those who can put up with it -- lies in the presentation. Peace's distinctive, almost incantatory style here is one full of repetition, short sentences and paragraphs, with the mesmerizing constant ton-ton-drip (and much more) helping to put the reader in Minami's frame of mind -- but the reader who can't go with the flow will, no doubt, find the book impossibly irritating. This approach to story-telling, the clipped style, half inside the protagonist's head, is a risky strategy, especially at such great length, but Peace employs it about as well as one can. Still, not everyone will likely be able to take it. A typical passage goes:
     Day is night. Night is day. Day is night. Night is day ...
     Fujita smiles, 'I thought that was you, corporal ?'
     Day is night. Night is day. Day is night ...
     Fujita laughs, 'That was you, wasn't it ?'
     Day is night. Night is day. Day is ...
     I start to speak but the lights go out --
     Night. Night. Night. Night ...
     There's been another power cut --
     Night. Night. Night ...
     'That was you, wasn't it ?' whispers Fujita again, in the dark.
       It's almost a prose-poem, and for the most part it works, lending Tokyo Year Zero a reverberating power rarely found in mystery-fiction. But it can be hard to take -- compounded by the rawness and ugliness that Peace so effectively relates.
       Certainly not for everyone, but an undeniable accomplishment. And, as it is the first part in a planned trilogy, it will be interesting to see where Peace takes it (and Minami) from here.

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Tokyo Year Zero: Reviews: David Peace: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author David Peace was born in 1967, and has long lived in Japan.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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