Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Dark Maidens
Itsumi is dead. As the founder and leader of St. Mary's Academy for Girls' literature club, Itsumi was responsible for bringing its members together and giving them all a space to call home while at school. Now, a week after her demise, her best friend Sayuri summons the girls for a traditional “mystery stew” and asks them all to bring short stories about Itsumi and her passing. Everyone thinks they know the answer behind her mysterious death. What truths will be revealed as each girl tells her story?
There are many ways to tell a mystery. Whether you use the classic four-act format, the basic whodunit, or something completely different, the end goal no matter what is to find out not only who committed the crime, but also why. That's a very twisting path in Rikako Akiyoshi's English-language debut, The Dark Maidens, and one that keeps even seasoned mystery readers on their toes while threading through the thorns Akiyoshi expertly throws in our way.
The story takes place at St. Mary's Academy for Girls, a private Christian school in Japan. Three years ago, as a high school first year, Itsumi took it upon herself to reestablish the school's literature club, and rumors spread that you could only join if Itsumi specifically invited you. Now in Itsumi's third year, the club is comprised of her and six other girls, all of whom are affected by Itsumi's sudden death. No one believes it to be suicide, and each member of the club, especially the five invited in by Itsumi (the sixth is her childhood compatriot Sayuri) has her own theory about who could have pushed Itsumi from a rooftop terrace. To that end, Sayuri invites the other girls to what she calls a “mystery stew” – an evening in the literature club's plush annex where they turn off the lights and add unseen ingredients to a hotpot, which they then must finish while they take turns reading stories aloud. This time Sayuri has asked each club member to write a story about Itsumi. The stories are swiftly revealed to be not-so-veiled accusations of murder by each club member towards another.
The result is a book structured like the film Rashomon, wherein each character presents her version of the events that lead up to Itsumi's death. We as readers must decide who we can believe and who is lying based on the clues offered up and the contradictions in the girls' stories. The players in each tale are the same, so we not only get to see how each girl sees herself (or wishes to be seen), but also how they are viewed from the outside, with a few facts seemingly emerging from the combined portraits. What we don't know is the reasons for what we think we know – for example, why is teen light novelist Shiyo so adamant that her works not be translated into other languages? Why did exchange student Diana come to Japan instead of her twin sister Ema? And how does scholarship student Mirai afford living when St. Mary's doesn't allow for the part-time job she so desperately needs? Some of these answers we can come up with for ourselves, but others are more elusive, and even more interesting than the “facts” we can garner are the things that remain completely uncertain – chief among them who Itsumi really was.
In this respect, The Dark Maidens draws not only on Rashomon's storytelling technique, but also on works such as Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table, which feels like a direct influence. (As a point of interest, author Rikako Akiyoshi received her advanced degrees in the U.S., so more obscure English-language works are certainly within her reach.) In that novel, the victim of a murder gathers (prior to his demise) four detectives to discuss crime; after his death, they all investigate his murder from different angles with differing ideas of who the culprit is. As the mystery stew party goes on, it becomes clear that Sayuri is doing something similar, and as the detectives, we readers fill the roles played by Hercule Poirot and his compatriots in the Christie novel. It makes for very active reading, and it is possible to figure out large swathes of the mystery simply by piecing the bits together, although it definitely takes some thought.
The characters themselves are what build the interest almost more than the mystery of Itsumi's death, at least at first. Each girl is distinct and doesn't fall into a particular light novel trope, although they may appear to on the surface. It becomes just as important to pay attention to what is not said as what is, and who we learn the least about. Akiyoshi does largely succeed in giving each character her own distinct voice as well, which certainly helps the story as everyone protests their innocence. Symbolism is also nicely woven through each girl's piece, both adding to the potential confusion as well as pointing to something that was staring you in the face all along.
The Dark Maidens, which as also been adapted to a live-action film, is the kind of mystery story it is difficult to put down, but also that you don't want to read too quickly. There's a lot going on and plenty of twists thrown in to lead you astray, but ultimately the conclusion is satisfying. If you're looking for a good mystery story, this is not one you want to pass up.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Sufficiently twisty and intriguing, makes you work for the answers
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