Tokyo is a really complex, intriguing novel.
We meet Ben Monroe, an American academic who moved to Japan via London after his marriage collapsed. He has a thing about death cults. We meet his daughter Mazzy, nearly 16, who is coming out to stay with him as she spends a reluctant semester at an international school in Tokyo whilst her mother, Lydia, stays back in the States and worries about radiation from Fukushima. And we meet Koji, the man who sat next to Mazzy on the plane and seems to like her – perhaps a bit too much.
The star of the show is the sense of place. Hogg evokes a perfect image of Japan. The strange mix of seaminess and sterility; the perfect but soulless nightclubs and bars; the contrast between the wholesome ryokans and the anonymity of the capsule hotels and love hotels. The food and drink feel authentic; the weather, the stations, the alleyways. It’s so accurate you can almost touch it.
The story itself involves Ben spending too much time searching for a mythological woman (a hostess he met on a previous trip to Japan) whilst spending too little time looking out for a real woman (his daughter, who appears to be in great peril). Bad call… The story poses questions about how far a separated man should feel beholden to his former family and how far he should be getting on with the rest of his life. Nicholas Hogg avoids giving an answer to this – we just know that Ben hasn’t got the balance quite right.
In any case, even if Ben is right to put distance between himself and his past life, he lacks a viable game plan for the future. Spending big money on crazy whims, is no way forward. Ben displays the detachment from reality of the worst kind of ex-pat; he behaves as though rules and societal expectations apply only when he wants them to; his actions may have immediate consequences, but as soon as he gets back to his apartment the slate is wiped clean and he can start the next day afresh. Basically, Ben is on one long, indefinite holiday.
The pacing is superb. As the novel builds – and it’s not a long novel – the sense of menace and peril ratchets up. The reader starts to see hidden monsters lurking in the shadows. And the zipping of the narrative from Ben’s first person to Mazzy’s third person – and the occasional viewpoint of Koji keeps a pacy feel.
If there is one reservation, it is the final sections when things go very surreal. For a novel that has felt very real and open, it is a bit jarring. It is explained in subsequent epilogues, but it didn’t feel authentic when being read. It may have been a bit of artifice to bring the novel to a rapid end without having to unfold events in a step by step sequence – which overall is merciful (nothing worse than the tension of a good psychological novel being lost by faithful adherence to the timeline of the denouement). And, in fairness, the handling of the ending is memorable…
Nicholas Hogg really is a first rate writer – engaging, lucid and original, but never showy. Each of his three novels is quite different, but all of equally high quality. Bring on the next one…