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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Aosawa Murders

Onda Riku

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To purchase The Aosawa Murders

Title: The Aosawa Murders
Author: Onda Riku
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 346 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Aosawa Murders - US
The Aosawa Murders - UK
The Aosawa Murders - Canada
Eugenia - France
Die Aosawa Morde - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: ユージニア
  • Translated by Alison Watts

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting presentation, and fairly effectively unsettling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 17/1/2020 Laura Wilson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/3/2020 Jennifer Reese
The Times . 27/12/2019 Mark Sanderson
Wall St. Journal . 14/2/2020 Tom Nolan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tantalising as a scene glimpsed through a half-open door, this is an utterly immersive puzzler in which nothing is entirely cut and dried." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "You will finish Onda's The Aosawa Murders more puzzled than you began, and that's the beauty of this stubbornly nonlinear novel. (...) The story, brilliantly translated by Watts, is patched together from scraps of rambling, deeply personal interviews, excerpts from a novel about the crimes, a confessional letter and crisp newspaper reports." - Jennifer Reese, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       The Aosawa Murders is largely set long after the actual crime, most of the chapters monologues -- interviews, but with the interviewer's words and questions left out -- by those with some first-hand knowledge of the surrounding events. In a sense, the story is a doubled look back, with much of the focus not only on the murders but then also on a book written about them by Makiko Saiga, ten years after the fact, with the first chapter presenting Saiga's recollections and thoughts, both on the murders -- she was a child who lived in the neighborhood at the time -- and on her book, The Forgotten Festival (for which she had, in (earlier) turn, interviewed many of the witnesses as well -- even as she tried to make it as ambiguous as possible, whether in fact the book was fiction or non-fiction: as her then editor describes it: "It is a work that cannot be classified neatly into any particular genre. Neither fiction nor non-fiction").
       The 1973 crime itself was horrific: at the celebrations for the shared birthday of three members of the Aosawa family, from three different generations, at the Aosawa Clinic the drinks were spiked with poison and seventeen people died -- horrible deaths, too. Only one person was completely unaffected, the blind daughter of the household, Hisako, around twelve at the time. The investigation involves the questioning of hundreds of people, but long doesn't lead anywhere; the focus is on the man who delivered the drinks, but he long remains unidentified. Only when the man is found dead, a suicide, does it appear that the crime is solved -- though the question why he did it remains open, his suicide note claiming he had received a note instructing him to commit the act.
       Hisako is presented as an unusual girl -- "bewitching -- intelligent and graceful. Simply being in her presence put you under her spell", as one person puts it -- and someone who seemed to have overcame their blindness with eerie ease; indeed, people often note that she seemed to be able to see despite it. She seems in many ways almost otherworldly -- including suffering from the appropriately called autointoxication --, with Saiga observing that in the aftermath: "She was the survivor of a tragedy -- a role she was made for". Her demeanor, and everything about her, also make some people suspicious -- they can't help but feel that she had something (or everything) to do with the crime. So also the detective handling the case is certain she is at heart of it. But evidence is lacking (especially now, after such a long time) -- though, suspiciously, evidence conveniently disappears (and one of those with information, who provided an account earlier in the book, dies).
       It's a huge problem:

There is no evidence, nothing at all. Only her smile, her insinuating words, and her suspect appearance. [...] There is nothing left. Nothing that can be used to pin her down as the mastermind. Nothing apart from everybody's conjectures and hopes, that is.
       The Aosawa Murders is a neatly creepy book, Onda using and creating atmosphere well. The accounts mix present-day observation -- many of the people who talk about what happened also point out present-day incidentals as they talk -- with memories from decades earlier, hardened in the memories but, since from so long ago, also seeming distant (and thus to some extent uncertain). The technique of so many of the chapters featuring only one side of what clearly was conversation, the present-day interviewer writing themselves out of the account, can be somewhat irritating but also contributes to the general feel of the novel, as absence and uncertainty about what is behind the crime is so central to it. The variety of voices and approaches -- some chapters, such as the one introducing the detective or an excerpt from Saiga's book on the crime, take on a different form -- help make for an engaging read, too. And while the two-tiered approach, giving such a prominent place to the initial account of the crime, Saiga's The Forgotten Festival, might at first seem to be a somewhat awkward fit, it too actually fits quite neatly into this larger picture. (And, of course, Onda makes a point of noting that The Forgotten Festival itself is not purely documentary, but rather straddles the divide between fiction and non .....)
       It makes for a creative, creepy thriller-mystery, the material and the many voices quite well handled by Onda.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 March 2020

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The Aosawa Murders: Reviews: Other books by Onda Riku under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Onda Riku (恩田陸) was born in 1964.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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