Book Review: The Boy in the Earth by Fuminori Nakamura

“If this review had a title, it would be “Zen and the Art of Noir”. And the Zen master, the true Buddha of Noir, is the dark genius that is Fuminori Nakamura.”

If we had a list of modern masters of noir fiction, and if it were possible—it isn’t—to place someone at the very top of that list, it would almost certainly be a Japanese author. There are so many it would be an exercise in futility to list every one of them. With authors like Keigo Higashino, Seicho Matsumoto, Natsuo Kirino, and countless others dominating the international crime scene, they’re proving themselves a force to be reckoned with.

If this review had a title, it would be “Zen and the Art of Noir”, and the Zen master, the true Buddha of Noir, is the dark genius that is Fuminori Nakamura. And in his newest English translated work, The Boy in the Earth, he’s created the darkest work he’s written to date, telling a tale of loss, abandonment and brutal mental and physical child abuse. His unnamed protagonist is a young man who was deserted by his parents when he was a little boy. Left to live with distant relatives, he was severely beaten and kicked around, starved and ultimately subjected to an unimaginable nightmare. As an adult, he’s constantly plagued by nihilistic thoughts, almost intentionally placing himself in harm’s way on several occasions, and obsessing over suicide and thoughts of death.

At its heart, The Boy in the Earth is an in-depth character study that dissects one young man’s life, giving us a deep look at his present and his past, slowly and brilliantly developing him in reverse time using introspection and mental flashbacks. But it’s also something greater than a mere study of a single individual’s broken life. Fuminori Nakamura is a professed scholar of human nature and societal normality and abnormality, and it’s more evident in this book than in any other story he’s penned to date. It’s an intensive vivisection of the human condition that displays in stark clarity all the darkness and brutality people are capable of, delivering a blisteringly honest look at the pain and suffering our protagonist has been through at the hands of others and continues to put himself through. Nakamura is true Grand Master of character development and he’s in top form here. He has a way of creating people that makes you feel like you’re reading about someone you know and care for.

In addition to his people building skills, Fuminori Nakamura is the king of mood and setting, making the most mundane of scenes and scenarios crackle with tension and foreboding so that, even in the blistering heat of summer, every single moment is absolutely drenched in darkness, so incredibly bleak and heavy that sometimes it’s emotionally trying on a visceral level. Nobody with a heart will walk away unaffected, nor will they, if they are of discerning mind, come through it without gaining some insight into themselves and humanity in general. The book puts you in a mood, or frame of mind really, that’s hard to shake even when you’re long finished with it, a sort of depressive, but hopeful introspection, not unpleasant but altogether unfamiliar. His prose is so concise and poetic, and delivered with such unflinching, brutal honesty it’s impossible to be unaffected by it:

“You’re a freak who takes pleasure from fear. You’d be better off dead. Those like you, their place is to die. You ought to have died back then, when you were in the earth. The person who’s here now is just a husk left over after what happened back then. If there’s a God, then in God’s eyes, you are outside of the plan, an error in calculation.”

Every single English translated book Fuminori Nakamura has written is a masterpiece and The Boy in the Earth, though always dark and often depressing, deserves a spot close to the best he’s written. This little three-eighths of an inch-thick book is packed with as much emotion, and information as an epic coming of age behemoth. Nakamura is a linguistic genius and his translator, Allison Markin Powell, has conveyed that brilliance exceptionally well here. If you’re a fan of deep, brooding, noir of the darkest kind you can get your hands on, Fuminori Nakamura, Zen Master of Noir, is the author you’re looking for. If you haven’t read his work yet, this quick, intense little shot in the arm is the perfect introduction to his work.

SHANE DOUGLAS KEENE

Publisher: Soho Press
Paperback: (147pp)
Release Date: 25 April 2017

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