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Seventeen bills itself as "an investigative thriller in the aftermath of an air disaster". Truly, it isn't.

Instead, Seventeen is a competent and intriguing evocation of the inner workings of a local Japanese newspaper, the North Kanto Times, using the backdrop of an air disaster on the paper's doorstep to allow simmering resentments and rivalries to boil over. We are introduced to Kazumasa Yuuki, who is trying to make an ascent on Tsuitate rock face some seventeen years after making a promise to his colleague, Anzai, to climb the face with him. This leads Yuuki into a spiral of reminiscences of the events seventeen years ago, where the planned ascent of the rock was interrupted by the crash of a Japanese Airlines 747 into a nearby mountain, causing the deaths of 524 people.

Seventeen years ago, Yuuki had been a roving reporter with the North Kanto Times, assigned to lead the Air Crash desk. He was responsible for sending reporters out into the field, editing their stories, deciding the layout and, ultimately, which stories would make the cut and which would not. Yuuki was the most experienced reporter at the paper who had not gone into management, leaving him both respected and shunned.

The paper itself was constantly compromised in its effort to sustain circulation. It could not make political statements, could not ally more with one side than another (a problem in a province where the two main rivals in Japan's ruling political party held their bases), and shunned real news in favour of reporting local school sports fixtures, naming every player in an effort to sell the paper to kids' parents. But politics loomed large in the boardroom where the chairman and managing director were engaged in a bitter power struggle, sucking staff into one faction or the other.

So when the 747 went down in the paper's area - despite not being on a major flight path - the paper entered an existentialist crisis. The natural instinct of a journalist is to go after a scoop, but when the scoop comes, the fear is paralysing. Nobody knows how to play it, and the temptation is to retreat to the familiar comforts of routine basketball games and ceremonial openings of arts festivals. This is the context into which Yuuki is thrust - with all eyes on him. And at the same time, Yuuki has his own personal issues to resolve, not least of which is the sudden collapse of his climbing buddy Anzai from the circulation department...

Seventeen is a very complex novel with many characters and a network of relationships between them. It can be tricky to keep up with exactly who is who, particularly for anglophone readers who are not attuned to Japanese names. Hideo Yokoyama includes little summary lines when reintroducing a character to remind us of their role - this can feel irritating and repetitive, but without it I suspect the reader would be hopelessly lost. A further issue raised by the complexity is the uneasiness the reader will have in discerning what is actually the focus of the novel. Is it the plane crash? Is it the office politics? Is it Yuuki's personal situation? In truth it is all of these and none of them. It is really a slice of drama, a fly on the wall, from a newspaper office at a time of crisis. There is no particular beginning and no end. There is no great narrative arc, no moral, no winners and losers. It just is.

And then there's the present day, climbing Tsuitate. I can see that there was a need to have the odd period of relief from the intensity and claustrophobia of the North Kanto Times - and the open air and focus on small, technical details of the climb provided that. It also offered an opportunity for Yuuki to put some distance between himself and the events of the past. But this came at the expense of elevating one strand of the story - Yuuki's personal life - above the others in significance even though it was perhaps not the most prominent line at the time of the disaster.

Overall this is a complex, thoughtful and thought-provoking novel that has been somewhat cruelly mis-labelled to give a sure-fire guarantee of disappointing many of its readers.



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