Two Fabulous Reads: Minae Mizumuro’s “An I-Novel” and Elly Griffiths’s “The Postscript Murders”

It is colder than Anchorage and Moscow. I thought I would while away the freezing days by reading review copies. I’ll do one a day, I told myself. After all, the English writer Pamela Hansford Johnson used to receive a box of books in the morning and have her reviews finished by the end of the day. The character Walter Bidlake, a literary journalist in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, did the same thing.

Well, I can’t keep up with Pamela and Walter, but at least I can condense two reviews in a single post. This week I am recommending An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura and The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffith.

I became a fan of Minae Mizumura when I discovered A True Novel, her haunting Japanese version of Wuthering Heights. I also admired and enjoyed this beautiful new translation of An I-Novel, a layered, pitch-perfect novel about a Japanese woman who feels out of time and place. Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translator, tells us that in Japan this autobiographical novel was called the “first bilingual novel”: it was written in Japanese and English to reflect Minae’s experience in Japan and the U.S.. Naturally, the translation of this lovely bildungsroman is in English for our sakes.

The characterization is deftly developed as the reader is taken back and forth in time in America and Japan. The heroine, Minae, is a sad, anxious woman at an Ivy League school who has longed for 20 years to return from the U.S. to Japan. At the age of 30, she is still a graduate student in French literature, hiding out in a cockroach-infested apartment, doing no work, realizing that she is almost past her expiration date in the world of Ph.D.’s

Minae’s only personal contact is with her older sister, Nanae, a sculptor who lives with two cats in New York. Nanae calls her long-distance almost every day. Nanae is barely getting by: she has broken up with her boyfriend, and she and Minae are are failures by their parents’ standards, both single women who can barely support themselves.

I love the sisters’ conversations about their mother’s insistence that they must marry. It never occurred to them that they would have to work.

Having grown up without any notion that we needed to work, this perfectly ordinary fact had not occurred to either of us until recently. But it had probably never occurred to Mother either as she brought us up. She worked because she wanted to, not because she had to.

A lovely book that we can all relate to, even though we come from different cultures. And now on to something different…

Elly Griffiths’s The Postscript Murders is a delightful cozy mystery. Set in Shoreham-by-Sea, it begins with an unlikely murder. Ninety-year-old Peggy Smith is popular with the other residents in her senior apartment house, loves Golden Age mysteries, and is known as a Murder Consultant (she helps writers with their murder plots). When a carer, Natalka, discovers Peggy’s dead body, she has a hunch something is wrong and suspects murder. She confides in DS Harbinder Kaur at the police station. And when a gunman shows up at the apartment after the funeral and runs away with one of Peggy’s out-of-print books, Harbinder believes Natalka’s theory.

I love the group of characters: The beautiful Natalka, originally from the Ukraine, has a wild imagination; Benedict is a former monk who runs a coffee business on the beach; and Edwin is an elderly gay man who watches Murder, She Wrote. These three bond together to investigate the crime, and end up at a literary festival in Scotland. Harbinder is on their side, trying to keep them from getting killed. But even nursing home residents talk in anagrams: Does “red rum” really mean murder?

An unputdownable brilliantly-plotted read!