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Fuminori Nakamura made a lot of waves in the US with The Thief, a novel that earned him the 2010 Oe Prize, Japan's most prestigious literary award, and his first to be translated into English. However, Evil and the Mask, the second book of his to be available in English, is undoubtedly the narrative that will help cement him as the new master of Japanese noir. While steering clear of using the same elements and becoming formulaic, Nakamura took everything that was right with The Thief and took it to the next level in Evil and the Mask.
Fumihiro Kuki was eleven years old when his enigmatic father called him into his study for a meeting. The powerful businessman had never done such a thing and was very vocal about considering children the most foolish things in the world. However, this time around he wanted to speak to his youngest song. Instead of imparting wisdom or discussing family life, the older Kuki told Fumihiro he had created him to be a cancer on the world, someone whose sole reason for being would be to cause great pain and suffering to those near him. According to his father, it's part of the family's tradition that each patriarch, when reaching the end of his life, will have one last child and teach him to cause destruction and despair. But that's not all: Fumihiro also learns that his father will show him what hell is like when he turns fourteen. Soon after, a young girl named Kaori comes to live in the Kuki household and goes to school with Fumihiro. Fearing she might be one of his father's pawns, Fumihiro starts thinking of ways to alter the destiny his father promised him.
While The Thief was a gloomy treat, Evil and the Mask is infinitely darker. Nakamura's prose is once again drenched in ennui, but this time around there's much more pain, solitude, sex, and death. There are also copious amounts of mystery and hatred. When everything comes together, the result is a nightmarish narrative that delves deep into the nature of murder and depravity.
Evil and the Mask works because Nakamura manages to establish a balance between good and evil and then uses questions and situations to constantly upset that balance in interesting ways. For example, all of Fumihiro's despicable acts are done because he wants to protect Kaori, who forever exists in his heart and brain as the perfect girl, a good-natured and pure soul for whom he would do anything. Also, the Kuki family is very wealthy, so money is removed from the equation both as an obstacle and an incentive. By taking financial gain out of the game, the author opens the door for the kind of philosophical ruminations on the nature of crime that have become a staple in his work.
Another element that makes this narrative interesting is the way the author layered the plot. Complex and full of chronological shifts that reveal the past as they unfurl the present, the novel's plot seamlessly integrates a stolen identity (with facial reconstruction included), a terror campaign, an appallingly dysfunctional family, and immorality into a story that, even at its most sinister, never ceases to be about love.
The way Nakamura looks at patricide, terrorism, remorse, nightmares, and evil is enough to make this a recommended read for fans of crime fiction. However, the clean, straightforward prose, shady meetings in hotel rooms and smoky bars, poisoned drugs, murders, obsessed detectives, and murky streets are what truly gives this novel its powerful noir atmosphere and make it an absolute must-read.