Who doesn’t love a good mystery? There’s a lot of fun to be had learning of a crime, meeting all the suspects, and trying to deduce “who done it.” Even better is a mystery with multiple conflicting accounts of the incident–who do you trust when everyone has been accused? Such is the dilemma presented in Rikako Akiyoshi’s The Dark Maidens, recently published by Vertical Inc. The novel was translated from Japanese into English by Kristi Fernandez and features illustrations by Booota. Does this mystery effectively grab the reader’s attention and play out satisfactorily? Is The Dark Maidens good?
The Dark Maidens stars the members of a Literature Club at a private, all-girls Catholic high school. They gather at the end of term for the club’s traditional mystery stew meeting, where each member contributes one (not necessarily edible) ingredient. As they eat, the club members take turns reading stories they prepared ahead of time. The assigned topic at this term’s meeting? Their theories regarding the death of club president Itsumi Shiraishi one week prior.
Each chapter comprises a club member’s account of how they met Itsumi, what their relationship was like, and who they think killed her. Though the club members all have differing accounts, they agree on one thing: it was one of their own who killed the ex-club president. As the reader progresses through the story, their understandings of the characters are shaped not just by each character’s own account, but also by how the other club members view them. This is a “Who done it?” tale that’ll have you second-guessing everything you thought you knew about each character and event at every turn. It’s only in the novel’s very final pages that the entire truth clicks into place.
Akiyoshi’s decision to use multiple narrators throughout the novel is a great one. By giving each main character a chance to shape the narrative, she provides the reader with ample opportunities to grow accustomed to each girl. Murder, betrayal, and deception all stem out of passionate emotions, and having several first-person POV’s allows the various characters’ emotions to be more effectively conveyed than they would have been through a single narrator or a distant third-person POV.
Besides allowing the reader time to get to know each character, the shifting POV’s help establish effective pacing. By beginning each chapter with a fresh voice, Akiyoshi trains the reader to recalibrate their expectations regularly. Just when you’ve grown to trust and feel sympathy for a character in one chapter, the next chapter (and its accompanying new narrator) could convincingly frame that character as the murderer. Letting each character provide their account of events firsthand also adds senses of intimacy and immediacy to the narrative, as if the reader were with the characters, sitting around the pot of mystery stew.
In terms of diction and sheer elegance of language, The Dark Maidens excels. Akiyoshi’s writing style is clear, pleasing to the ear, and poetic in the best of ways. There are a number of sentences throughout the book that floor me with how well they reveal major plot twists via clever turns of phrase or double-meanings. Said twists are also satisfying in their unpredictability. I seldom figured out what the next reveal would be before it happened, and even when I did it would be followed up by a further twist upon said twist that I never saw coming. The drama builds throughout, and the clues provided snatch one’s attention without making the ultimate outcome too easy to guess.
I also have to give kudos to the translation and illustration. So far as I can tell, Fernandez did a great job translating the novel. I can’t remember a single clumsy sentence or passage that made me feel like I was missing vital cultural context. Booota, meanwhile, provides lovely artwork that helps guide the reader’s mental image of events. Though there are only a handful of illustrations interspersed throughout the novel, they still feel like a genuine part of the reading experience, not just like afterthoughts.
I have very few qualms with this book. There are some occasions where characters deliver fairly long descriptions of scenery that seem unneeded, given that all the other characters are familiar with the settings in question. With that said, most instances where this happens could be chalked up to the club members wanting their short stories to be effectively grounded with imagery. I also think that one or two of the characters had comparatively less interesting narratives than the others, but their chapters were still good. This novel never even approaches being bad; it just fluctuates between being excellent and very good.
Overall, The Dark Maidens is my favorite novel of the year thus far. Its characters are likable, its language is both clear and lovely, and its pacing is excellent. This is mystery done right–each chapter enhances the reader’s understanding of events without ever making the final culprit or truth too predictable. As soon as I finished this novel I passed it along to my boyfriend, and he finished it in a single day. I highly recommend you follow his lead and spend a good day with The Dark Maidens.
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