There are plenty of slow contemporary fiction stories that are so life-like, they can be mundanely emotional, ruminative, and unnecessarily descriptive. Some readers might savor the little details, others might quickly lose interest. The Japanese novel ‘A Man’ by Keiichiro Hirano is all those things, it still had me turning page after page, because despite being padded up with some sub-plots and themes that weren’t exactly gripping, it had an intriguing exciting primary plot.
The novel begins with a prologue, where the author introduces the protagonist as divorce-lawyer Akira Kido; he tells us that Kido is the kind of unique man who writers seek to fashion their heroes after. But before we can get to Kido’s story, chapter one surprisingly begins with the tale of a completely different person, a woman called Rie who loses her beloved husband Daisuke in a logging accident. She contacts Daisuke’s estranged family for the first time, only to find out her husband was not who he claimed to be. Shocked to find out she didn’t even know her husband’s real name, Rie seeks Kido’s legal advice to find out his real identity. The lawyer baffled by the case, becomes obsessed with finding the truth about both the real Daisuke’s whereabouts and the man who was pretending to be him. He is simply referred to as Mr X from thereon.
What follows next is a slow-burn investigation into Daisuke’s past and leads on who Mr X could’ve been. As Kido attempts to piece the life of a stranger, he also battles some of his own personal demons – like his mixed feelings over his Korean ancestry and his failing marital life. Author Keiichiro Hirano paints a vivid picture of all the central characters, however I found Rie’s son Yuto to be the sincerest and endearing of them all, despite making only brief appearances. He is a sensitive child, who comes to love and admire his stepfather and has a hard time dealing with the unexpected loss; but at the same time, he is thoughtful of the feelings of those around him.
‘A Man’ investigates the complex world of ‘identity theft’ and ‘identity swapping’ and readers get a detailed sense of what drives someone intro completely abandoning their past. Kido goes out of his way to get to the bottom of Rie’s case, doing detective work for three years for a paltry remuneration. Through his work, Keiichiro Hirano makes reader ponder upon whether they’d be willing to cast off their identities if they could afford the chance to start afresh. Does it take courage or cowardice to do such an act? If someone’s deception does no harm, are they deserving of forgiveness?
The fact that the story starts off at an unknown rural area simply known as ‘Town S’ lends a mysterious and rustic touch to the tale. You are transported to its deserted streets, out of business shop windows and the company of the few who either refused to leave their hometown or couldn’t find an opportunity. There’s a subtle juxtaposition of Rie’s content marital life in the boondocks against Kido’s own strained marriage in the big city, which makes for a compelling case study. It’s not like there is some sort of deliberate messaging that rich, successful upper-class couples can’t keep their marriage intact for long; instead, it’s just a hopeful look at how one can lead a satisfying enough family life in the countryside.
For international readers, Keiichi Hirano’s exploration of xenophobia in Japan might make for an enlightening theme. The novel gives one a fair glimpse into the second-hand treatment meted out to Japanese citizens of Korean descent, even though Kido has a prejudice-free childhood since his family adopted Japanese names to escape scrutiny and bullying.
Slowly and steadily, the novel gathers pieces of Daisuke and Mr X’s life, two men from two completely different worlds and clashing temperaments. Spread over 300 pages, ‘A Man’ takes its time to unravel its core mystery, the progression sometimes made me skeptical and worried about whether readers would get any closure on who Mr X was or what happened to the real Daisuke. All I can say is… that for a slow-burn mystery puffed up with many themes, the novel comes to a satisfactory conclusion. I’ve already recommended a bunch of my close friends to read it, and if a realistic mystery set in Japan sounds like your cup of tea, check this work of fiction out.