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Review: The Goddess Chronicle
May 28, 2013

The Goddess Chronicle
Natsuo Kirino

Japanese mythology is a very deep well that many Japanese authors use in their stories. There is also a long tradition of tragic love stories in Japanese fiction. Natsuo Kirino, best known for her contemporary crime fiction and thrillers such as Out and Grotesque, combines myth and a love story in her suspenseful novel The Goddess Chronicle.

The book opens with the main character already dead. Namima (“Woman-Amid-the-Waves”) was born far from the Japanese mainland on a small island named Umihebi (“Island of Sea Snakes”). “I am a miko – a priestess. I was barely sixteen when I died. Now I make my home among the dead, here in this realm of darkness.” Before she died, Namima was a servant to her older sister, Kamikuu, who was to become the island’s Oracle, or high priestess. Their grandmother, Mikura-sama, was the current Oracle, making their family the most prestigious on the island.

Life on isolated island was harsh. There was little land for growing food, and the fishing fleets kept island men away for months at a time. The only really abundant food source were the sea snakes which the island women caught and dried. Along with the difficult environment, the island society had evolved to be culturally rigorous as well. The strict rules included those about foods that could be eaten by whom, restrictions on marriage partners, and forbidden access to sacred places on the island.

When Namima fell for a young man named Mahito, she violated several of those rules. Mahito’s family was disgraced because they had only sons and no daughters, and daughters were a sign of being blessed. Mahito convinced Namima to eat the food meant only for her sister, and visit places on the island where they were not allowed. Worst of the rules broken, she fell in love with him and became pregnant.

When her sister died suddenly, Namima was imprisoned in a secret crypt with the body of her sister and the corpses of other priestesses and Oracles. Her duty was to watch her sister’s corpse to make sure she was really dead. Mahito found Namima and they escaped from the island on a small boat. During the several months on the ocean, she gave birth to her daughter, whom they named Yayoi. Only a few days after the birth, Namima died in a surprising way.

Because she had broken so many rules, Namima went to the Realm of the Dead to serve Izanami, goddess of the underworld. Izanami had been there for millennia; her main duty was to select one thousand people to die every day. Her husband, Izanaki, god of the living world, had banished her there after they created the world together as the gods of love and sexual desire. As Izanami explained to Namima after she arrived: “We are standing on an incline that is known as Yomotsuhira-saka – the Yomi Slope. Just ahead, at the top of the slope, is the pass between the Realm of the Dead and the world of the living. My husband, Inasaki, put that boulder there to block the passage, so I am trapped here for eternity.”

Inasaki taught Namima about the beginning of the world, the roles of the many goddesses and gods, and the rules of the underworld. They commiserated over their lives in the underworld, both due to their lovers. After a lengthy stay in the underworld, Namami could no longer stand not knowing why she died. She found a way back to the world of the living through a small opening at the edge of the boulder that allowed insects to pass back and forth. When a wasp found its way into the underworld, Namima used her new knowledge to take over its body and fly out.

As a wasp she had many adventures getting back to her home island. There she found out the fates of her family and the island residents, and most importantly, the reason for her death. Of course, a wasp’s life is short, so she soon died but not before she took some revenge for her death.

When the wasp died, Namima returned back in the Realm of the Dead, and the story shifts to a handsome man named Yakinahiko, a sailor with a woman every port. When he heard of a beautiful woman on a far away island, he became obsessed with making her one of his conquests. He made his way to the Island of Sea Snakes, but as he arrived with his crew, they made a surprising discovery that led him to the Realm of the Dead and the revelation of his true identity and connection with Namima.

Stories with a strong line of myths can be dense and difficult to understand, especially without a lot of background knowledge. Kirino does a masterful job in creating a story that is both entertaining and education. It is an excellent novel that reveals what it is to be human through a society’s rich mythology.


Number of comments: 2
click here to add a comment

Jo Reed
It sounds a little weird to me. But I liked her book "Out" so maybe I'll give it a chance.

Yes, Jo, it is a little weird! Myths can be that way, and stories based on myths can too.


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