Translated by Rebecca Copeland
Review by Annabel
Japanese author Natsuo Kirino is primarily known for her crime novels, of which Out is the most widely known. However, she also contributed to the Canongate Myths series back in 2014 – a series of retellings of world myths -and Canongate have now added her title, The Goddess Chronicle, to their ‘Canons’ series of modern classics.
Kirino’s novel The Goddess Chronicle is woven around the Shinto creation myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the divine beings who gave birth to all the islands of Japan. In brief: Izanami died giving birth to the fire god and went to the underworld. Izanagi went to retrieve her, but she couldn’t return as she’d eaten the food of the underworld. He had promised not to look at her but couldn’t resist – seeing her as an undead hag. In revenge, she vowed to kill a thousand people a day; he retaliated saying that 1500 would be born every day (many of them his progeny).
Izanagi’s visit to the underworld reminds me strongly of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of Persephone too – who having eaten Hades’ pomegranate seeds was forced to return each year, but these parallels are only a small part of the tale.
And so, to Kirino’s story: Two girls live on the last island in the Japanese chain. It’s a beautiful place, shaped like a teardrop, but it is hard to survive in this land and the men spend most of their time at sea. Namima and Kamikuu are the best of friends, but they are separated on Kamikuu’s sixth birthday when the older girl is sent to live with her grandmother, the island’s Oracle, to be trained to succeed her. Namima is told not to look at Kamikuu now, because she is ‘the impure one’, reinforcing the sense of difference she had always felt between the two of them. When the Oracle dies, Kamikuu becomes the new priestess, but there is a shock in store for Namima. Tradition dictates that she will have to become the new guardian of the dead, helping the spirits onto the afterlife. She is taken and locked into the cave area where the bodies are left to decay.
However, no-one knew that Namima was pregnant, by the one-armed son of the island’s second family. A big adventure begins for Namima with escape, giving birth, and her own death. She ends up in the underworld where she becomes a servant to Izanami, helping the goddess serve up her cold dish of daily revenge. Eventually she feels compelled to ask to be reincarnated and return to the real world to find out what happened to her own baby daughter … is this something she would be better off not knowing? Although Namima lives in a matriarchal society, in which a family lineage that produces many girls is revered, it’s not a particularly nurturing one. Life is hard and only the top families are permitted to even have children and if, like the island’s second family, they keep producing boys, disgrace beckons. The role of the oracle seems sacrosanct, everything is geared towards making her life easy, happy, and full of children; the life of the poor girl who has to take on the other lonely role is near forgotten. The moment at which it becomes clear to Namima that when Kamikuu dies she must perish too as did her predecessor (the great-aunt she never knew) is heart-rending.
Gods and Goddesses from many cultures are renowned for their capricious natures, and the long-lasting torments they inflict upon all who dare to challenge them. Izanami is so hardened by her daily task of choosing those to die, you can’t hope but wish that she and Izanagi would find a way to ease their quarrel. There is also a sense that Izanami and Namima’s work in looking after the dead in both the underworld and on the island is women’s work in this culture; they have a sense of pride in a job well done.
The Goddess Chronicle has everything you need from a mythological fable: a plucky young heroine full of questions who will come to understand her place in the scheme of things as she comes of age; adventure in a beautiful yet cruel world at the end of the Earth; love and vengeance for both gods and humans. Namina’s tale is sad and dark, yet there is hope – and we need that.
Annabel is a Co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books, and she loves novels retelling myths and legends.
Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate, 2014). 978-1782111603, 320pp, paperback.
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