Winner of Japan's 2009 Ōe Prize (an award for literary novels judged by Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe), Nakamura's English-language debut chronicles the aftermath of a "perfect crime" in which the titular thief plays a small role. It also delineates the time leading up to and after the moment when the crime's mastermind ensnares him with another three jobs.
Using this spare plot as its basis, Nakamura deftly creates the tale of a Tokyo pickpocket while exploring questions of fate and manipulation. Here, the underworld bears little trace of the glamor that sometimes occurs in works featuring an anti-hero. As this criminal world consumes its members along with its victims, readers are treated to an empathetic portrayal of a man whose desire for life resurfaces under duress.
The thief - whose name is revealed once in a quick aside - robs only the rich, without violence; keeps only the cash; returns the wallets he steals; and helps others - notably a young boy whose mother, a member of the demimonde, has ordered him to shoplift. He appears as a talented but non-threatening everyman whose principles guide his actions. Though the thefts are not ingenious in their execution, they demonstrate the character's ease at gliding through public spaces, the realistic lack of self-awareness of his fellow travelers, and the extent to which he depends on anonymity. It's a lifestyle that proves unsustainable, yet difficult to change when deep entanglement with mysterious elements complicates his escape.
Some of these elements include a recurrent, ominous image of a tower; memories of his past relationship with a woman named Saeko; and Kizaki, the leader of a gang the thief was briefly involved with, who later manipulates the thief simply because he can. In addition, the deaths of several prominent figures have been made possible by the thief's participation in a home invasion, a crime which Kizaki uses to cover up more sinister acts.
Although the minimal background to these events may puzzle some readers, such ambiguity is arguably necessary in a novel that hinges on a detached and unreliable narrator. Shadowy memories and circumstances embody themes of loss and emotional deadening, which arise from existing on the fringes. The thief, who has long made it a practice to operate alone, must struggle with the insistent reminder that it is impossible to separate past from present and to suppress the need for human connection.
Despite its darkness (at one point, in a moment of reflection, the thief declares, "If you can't stop the light from shining in your eyes, it's best to head back down in the opposite direction"), Nakamura imbues the tale with occasional humor as well as interludes that reveal the main character to be less hardened than he seems. The result is a disturbing examination of self-denial, bravado and its consequences, with an impressively rendered twist: the thief becomes a vulnerable - even winning - figure.
This review was originally published in April 2012, and has been updated for the January 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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