Book Review: The Kingdom by Fuminori Nakamura

The Kingdom

Written by Fuminori Nakamura
Hardcover: 224pp
Released on July 12, 2016
Published by Soho Crime

coverWhen it comes to international crime writers there  are certain names that spring to mind automatically. Jo Nesbo is one, as is Mo Hayder, and certainly Stieg Larsson. But if I had to name just one author who is absolutely iconic in the field of border and boundary crushing noir, it would be Fuminori Nakamura, the Japanese master who brought us the breakout novel, The Thief. That book received much attention and garnered high accolades from readers and critics alike, so I was delighted to receive a copy of his most recent novel, The Kingdom.

In his afterword to The Kingdom Nakamura says:

“When I was working on The Thief, I thought I wanted to write not a sequel but a sister novel.Two novels where you could read either one first, or even just enjoy one on its own.”

The Kingdom is that sister novel. Fuminori Nakamura tells the story of Yurika, a young woman who works for a Tokyo crime lord, helping him to set up blackmail scenarios in the guise of a prostitute. But she doesn’t have sex with her “Johns.” Instead she drugs them and then takes incriminating pictures that she gives to her boss. It turns out her boss has a powerful and sadistic rival, Kizaki, who engages her in a deadly game that seems like, no matter how she plays it, she loses, but she has no choice but to go along. As in The Thief, Nakamura wastes no time jumping into the heart of his story and we are quickly propelled into the life of Yurika, the crimes she commits, and the danger she tries desperately to extricate herself from.

Whenever I read a book for review, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve read, soaking it up in an effort to determine what it is that makes or breaks a story, and in the case of The Kingdom, it is unquestionably character that gives this thing life and keeps you invested in it. Nakamura gets deep into the thoughts and feelings of his protagonist, building her up as a deeply flawed, three dimensional individual, helping his readers to know her and thus, to care about what happens to her.

Fuminori Nakamura’s prose is always sharp and concise and, while the book is somewhat short on action, the story is fast and exciting all the same, a study of Japan’s bleak and shady underbelly that keeps the reader engaged from page one. Yurika’s tale is an achingly human one of a young woman with a troubled past, a woman trying to find her way through the darkness of her memories and of her current deadly situation. Throughout the book she frequently refers to the moon, almost to the point of obsession:

“What was the moon then? Was it just my fantasy? An illusion that suddenly came to my scared, tired body? Or maybe that illusion tried to fool me, but I didn’t let it. I’m not sure if its light was good or evil. I thought it might not be either. The moon just shines with the light of chaos.”

Nakamura writes with the flare of the classic Japanese poets, never overly verbose or florid but always lyrical, and every word or sentence he writes seem to have multiple purposes or meanings. I think the moon in this case is possibly a metaphor for hope or desire as the story starts off with:

“When did I realize that I would never get what I wanted most?”

And then comes full circle in chapter sixteen with the following:

“When did I realize that I would never get what I want most?
Do I still want it? If I got it, what would I do?”

Which makes me think that the moon is likely representative of her desires, unattainable and something that she questions the morality of. Of course, everybody has a different experience when it comes to reading–or really any sort of entertainment–and you might read something else into the frequent references to the moon. Whatever you take away from it, it’s a safe bet that you’ll take enjoyment with it. Fuminori Nakamura is at the top of his game here and I have to give the translator some kudos too. Kalau Almony did an exceptional job capturing the dark, alluring voice of Yurika and, as unreliable narrators go, she’s never anything less than beguiling.

The Kingdom is my first foray into the works of Fuminori Nakamura and I think it’s a great place to start. The story is captivating, Yurika’s character is fascinating and extremely likeable in spite of her somewhat amoral tendencies. Her flaws create dimension and give the story the ingredients it needs to fit firmly and unquestionably in the realm of dark noir fiction. I enjoyed this book immensely and will seek out the rest of Nakamura’s work posthaste. If you like literary crime fiction with a strong human element, I highly recommend you read this book.

Buy The Kingdom here.
Buy The Thief here.

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