Book Review: THE EARTHQUAKE BIRD, an atmospheric mystery set in Tokyo

Jones, Susanna - The Earthquake BirdThe Earthquake Bird
Susanna Jones

In The Earthquake Bird, police officers come to take translator Lucy Fly in for questioning in the disappearance and likely murder of Lily Bridges, a woman recently arrived from England. Lucy refuses to answer most of the officers’ questions, even if they might help her. While confined by the police, Lucy considers her past and how became a murder suspect.

Ten years ago, Lucy Fly left England for Tokyo, cutting off all ties with her family. The only girl out of eight children, always told she was strange, she had sought refuge in isolation and in fake languages. As an adult, it was natural she sought a country where she could escape.

Even in Tokyo, Lucy had few friends: just a co-worker, the other members of a string quartet in which she played cello, and occasionally other ex-pats that post often exasperated her. Yet when she met amateur photograph Matsuda Teiji by stepping into the frame of his picture, she became caught up in the relationship, though it was often a mystery to her and he seemed to set the terms of their contact.

Though Lucy was uninterested in seeing anyone else, her acquaintance Bob asked her to help a new arrival, Lily Bridges, who spoke no Japanese, find a place to live since Lily seemed overwhelmed and anxious. Lucy reluctantly agreed.

Lucy’s traumatic past, her relationship with Teiji, and her budding friendship with Lily layer and intersect, opening up childhood wounds that echo in the present. But, do they make her a murderer?

The Earthquake Bird is written in economical, elegant language and offers a lovely view of Tokyo from the perspective of an outsider. Its commentary on translation and in living in two languages is also interesting. To some extent, the book is a commentary on the tendency to rewrite and reinterpret memories and the past and the possible danger involved. I also liked the idea of Teiji experiencing the world so completely through photography and how that affects Lucy.

The mystery element of the story was less compelling. We know from the beginning that Lily is missing and likely dead. What happened to her is wrapped up in the final pages of the novel. Arguably, the mystery wasn’t the point, but it was positioned that way, so I was expecting a little more.

Furthermore, the author used some techniques, such as the similarity of Lucy and Lily on the page, that had no consequence in the narrative. Additionally, another frequently used device (which I won’t describe to avoid spoiling it for anyone who cares) seems like it will be very important but also has no resolution or explanation by the end of the novel.

People who are interested in a portrait of Tokyo or a unreliable narrator’s excavation of her past will likely enjoy The Earthquake Bird. Those who are looking for a more conventional mystery, though, will be disappointed.

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