In the “Best of the B-Sides” series, critic and bookseller Lori Feathers recommends a new work in translation along with a number of backlist (“B-side”) titles that you might have missed.
There is a way of knowing that exists outside the realm of reason and intellect, a special awareness that allows those rare individuals with extraordinary sensory or perceptive powers to intuit things that the rest of us quite simply cannot. Some of the most interesting characters in fiction possess this kind of preternatural acuity, like those in the books discussed below.
Japanese author Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (Bitter Lemon Press, 2020; translated by Alison Watts) is an atmospheric murder mystery set in a town on the Japanese coast, a place where the “overbearing presence of the sea” casts a dense, suffocating humidity over its inhabitants. The novel proceeds as a series of conversations between various townspeople with connections to the victims or the murder investigation and an unidentified interlocutor who comes to the town some thirty years later seeking answers about the infamous crime.
On a rainy afternoon, family and friends gathered at the home of the town’s most prominent doctor for a birthday party. During a celebratory toast, cyanide-laced drinks were served, and seventeen people died almost instantly. The only survivors are the family’s long-serving maid and the doctor’s blind twelve-year-old daughter, Hisako. Although a loner confesses to the crime in his suicide note months after the massacre, some doubt that he acted alone, namely the retired police detective Inspector Teru and Makiko, Hisako’s childhood friend, who would go on to write a controversial book about the poisonings entitled The Forgotten Festival.
Arriving at the crime scene minutes after the victims are discovered, Inspector Teru is overcome by the feeling that “an enormous, indifferent malice” presides within the doctor’s house. Later, when Teru and his police partner arrive at Hisako’s hospital room to question her, Teru feels that same “transparent malice” and knows with absolute clarity that Hisako played a role in the poisonings. Teru’s belief in Hisako’s guilt remains unwavering during the ensuing months of his investigation and for years afterward, despite the lack of a motive or evidence linking her to the crime.
Like Teru, Hisako possesses uncanny intuition. What’s more, she has an extrasensory prowess that not only compensates for her sightlessness but magnifies her instinctual grasp of things that others cannot even fathom:
She couldn’t see but she had a sense of size, and to her emotions were like balloons expanding in the dark. She knew their scale and texture. An excited cheerful mood would sparkle, because she could tell that something was twinkling high up in the air. Love and adoration were like air currents, or heat.
Onda layers various characters’ conflicting impressions of the mercurial Hisako, and of Makiko and her intentions in writing The Forgotten Festival. And she masterfully creates suspense as the psychological tension among the characters builds to a crescendo. The Aosawa Murders is much more than a crime novel or police procedural: it is a stunning examination of evil in an uncommonly compelling story.
I’ve raved about the work of French-Senegalese writer Marie NDiaye in previous columns, and her writing is so stunning that I’m not at all reluctant to do so again. In the slim, psychological gem Self-Portrait in Green (Two Lines Press, 2014; translated by Jordan Stump), NDiaye explores how private fears and vulnerabilities distort reality. She does this by delving into the mind of an unnamed narrator who perceives that certain women in her life are “green”; that is, elusive, beguiling, and malign.
It’s true that green can’t possibly be the sole color of cruelty, just as green is by no means inevitably the color of cruelty, but who can deny that cruelty is particularly given to draping itself in all sorts of greens?
Her narrator’s voice is wonderfully original. Her anxieties override rational thought, and the women in her life bear the brunt of her unbalanced state of mind. Among these are her mother, her former schoolteacher, friends, and acquaintances. The color green allows us to visualize the narrator’s vilification of them. Some are green in the literal sense—they wear green clothing, hide behind trees, or have emerald-colored eyes. Others are green simply because of the negative feelings they evoke.
An absolute woman in green, Katia Depetiteville never shows any trace of gratitude for a favor that’s been done her. Comfortably settled in with us, she exercises her rights as a houseguest with a voracity, almost a brutality . . .
Here we find the most unreliable of narrators, her slippery reality stamped with NDiaye’s distinct style of surrealism. The protagonist inhabits a hypersensory state that triggers unfailingly negative and harmful emotional reflexes. As we reach the book’s final pages, she has become convinced that it is her destiny to be a green woman, the personification of her own fears and insecurities. She succumbs to the inertia of remaining in the destructive cycle her mind has created, incapable of acknowledging that the meanness she sees in others is merely a reflection of herself.
Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Patrick Süskind’s widely admired novel Perfume (Vintage, 1986; tr. John E. Woods) reveals the soul’s dark journey when it is ensnared in the despair of loneliness. In squalid eighteenth-century Paris, the foundling Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born without a smell. He does not smell like a baby should, nor does he smell of anything at all, whether good or bad. But as he grows older, Grenouille discovers that he possesses an extraordinary ability to smell that allows him to experience the world “as if he were an autodidact possessed of a huge vocabulary of odors that enabled him to form at will great numbers of smelled sentences . . .”
His fellow orphans are frightened of Grenouille and avoid him. His lack of bodily scent allows him an unsettling invisibility that means his quiet presence often goes unnoticed, while his acute sense of smell gives him the ability to anticipate things like a rain shower or another’s approach. As a young man, he often comes to a stop on a busy Paris street corner:
His eyes closed, his mouth half open and nostrils flaring wide . . . Grenouille was out to find odors still unknown to him; he hunted them down with the passion and patience of an angler and stored them up inside him.
One such day, he catches the scent of something unfamiliar and unknown to him, a smell so sublime that he has to possess it. The scent carries him across the city to a young virgin. Grenouille is so overcome with the need to possess the girl’s scent that he strangles her to death. Rather than feeling guilty or sad about extinguishing the girl’s life, Grenouille feels inspired. From that moment on, he is seized with the certainty that he will become a great perfumer and recreate the virgin’s scent, distilling it into an exquisite perfume that will invoke desire in all who smell it.
Grenouille’s obsession takes him across France as he perfects the perfumer’s art. He quickly stuns master perfumers with his extraordinary nose, and they recruit him to reverse-engineer their competitors’ successful perfumes. Years later, despairing of his lifetime of invisibility and loneliness, Grenouille wears his created scent in an effort to be an ordinary human and at last inspire others to notice and desire him. A quick-paced fable replete with rich descriptions of time and place, Süskind’s novel is a sensualist’s delight.
In the first pages of Chilean author Lina Meruane’s searing semiautobiographical novel Seeing Red (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016; tr. Megan McDowell), the narrator describes what she saw during an ocular hemorrhage that rendered her blind:
And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.
For the remainder of the novel, Lina brings the reader into her visionless world, where she can “see” things only from memory and what was once familiar is now strange:
The house was alive, it wielded its doorknobs and sharpened its fixtures while I still clung to corners that were no longer where they belonged. It changed shape, the house, the rooms castled, the furniture swapped places to confuse me.
But at the same time, Lina’s other senses become sharper. Sights and sounds are amplified; her fingers now possess “their own lidless eyes on their tips.” As she navigates this new, uncertain existence with her boyfriend—moving together to a new apartment in New York City, visiting family back in Santiago, and undergoing endless, inconclusive medical exams and procedures—Lina perseveres by force of will and a keen intuition that makes her aware of things she was incapable of knowing before she lost her sight.