|Image from www.penguin.co.uk|
Doubleday, 24 August 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book through Amazon Vine.
This relatively short debut thriller by Buckler focusses on Alex, a young English teacher (i.e. he is English and he teaches English) living in Tokyo. Alex, as becomes clear, has something of a shady past which he wants to leave behind, to the extent that he refuses to discuss or acknowledge it to Naoko, the girl with whom, otherwise, he gets on very well (and with whom he'd like to get on even better.)
Naoko, though, also has secrets and it's the unwillingness of the pair to come clean that, in an almost Thomas Hardy-esque fashion, ultimately lands them into trouble.
Buckler's story weaves backwards and forwards, only allowing Alex's history to emerge slowly and saying even less about Naoko's until she's forced to come clean. The relationship between Alex and Naoko is narrated via several parallel narratives separated by weeks, months or days. Sometimes it isn't clear where we are, and I found this temporal dislocation, with its air of continual jet lag, an effective device to convey the sense of otherness that Alex feels living in a very different culture from that of his native London. It's a good way of getting this distance over without resorting to an Orientalist "look at the strange foreign ways that Our Man has to cope with!" approach - always something of a risk in books that place a Western protagonist in an "exotic" setting, but one that Buckler neatly sidesteps.
At the same time, the book doesn't disguise the fact that, yes, Alex is in a foreign country; they do things differently there. And his inability to navigate that (together, as I've said, with his refusal to face his past) doesn't help him with his problems.
It isn't, perhaps, a particularly edifying picture of an Englishman abroad but has a ring of truth about it and makes for a complex and involving story.
I should though warn you that Alex is the sort of protagonist the reader can see making mistakes and digging himself in deeper and deeper, and who, if it were possible, you'd like to take aside around 100 pages in, and have a serious conversation with. Doing that would, of course, torpedo the story utterly which would be a pity because this is a deftly paced, taut and engaging thriller with plenty of surprises and reveals, especially towards the end.
It's a great read, although won't, I think, be on the recommendations list of the Tokyo Tourist Board.
A fine debut, and I look forward to reading more from Buckler.