There is a Japanese concept called Shibumi. Shibumi is a Zen concept that captures the height of personal excellence and absolute clarity. In other words, it is the ability to achieve the maximum effect with the minimum means. Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is a short, simply written book in which the prose is clear and distinct and in many ways embodies this concept.
There are two people in a room in a Tokyo flat on a hot evening and we hear from each of them. Aki and Hiro have been sharing this flat and tonight is their last night. There are things each needs to say to the other and this is the last opportunity they have to speak their minds and get answers to their questions.
There’s an almost child-like clarity to Riku Onda’s prose and the effect of it is to make us feel quite unsettled. When we hear Hiro’s thoughts as he replays his conversation with Aki, we are startled to hear that he believes that Aki is a murderer.
Then Aki’s thoughts tell us that although she has told Hiro that she is leaving to go to Vietnam, she has lied because she believes that he has murdered the same man that is at the centre of Hiro’s suspicions about Aki.
So who are Aki and Hiro? And why would either of them want to murder a tour guide who, the police believe, died as a result of a tragic accident.
Rita Ondu’s cleverly simple structure slowly feeds in small pieces of information, letting the reader form a picture of this relationship and allowing us gradually to see what has bound these two people together. But what we hear is sometimes speculation and it’s not clear that what either Aki or Hiro is saying is always the truth; rather it is their interpretation of events. Who they are to each other lies at the heart of how their memories lead them to some deeply uncomfortable revelations.
Patches of their interchange reminded me strongly of Samuel Becket’s prose. Someone will say something simple, but it is imbued with meaning and overlaid with the commonplace. The linguistic style strips and strips away any artifice until it is as if these characters are naked and yet everything is concealed.
The claustrophobia of what is not being said piles onto the heat of the warm, still evening and the smells of food and drink that are now going stale in this small room. It is suffocating and there is an undercurrent of unease and an intensity that builds and builds until you are sure that something has to give.
All credit then to Alison Watts’ translation which manages to keep that simplicity and intensity front and centre.
We come to understand that this couple share many things including a childhood that has real trauma attached to it. As Aki and Hiro recount their memories it is hard to know whether either of them is reliable. Through these half formed memories and the replaying of events in the forest where the tour guide died, we find some startling and quite honestly horrifying revelations.
Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is more than a psychological thriller. It is an atmospheric, unsettling, deeply suspenseful book that deals with two people’s search for peace by finding the truth and it sometimes makes you forget to breathe. Terrific pacing, real clarity of prose and the drip-feed of revelations come together to build a truly breath-taking read.
I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time to come. Highly recommended.
Riku Onda, born in 1964, has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. She has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television.Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight follows on from the success of The AosawaMurders and is her second work to be translated into English.
Alison Watts is an Australian-born Japanese to English translator and long-time resident of Japan. She has translated The Aosawa Murders, Aya Goda’s TAO: On the Road and On the Run In Outlaw China and of Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.