In this latest offering in the Canongate myths series, rising Japanese writer Natsuo Kirino addresses the legend of Japanese deities Izanami and Izanagi. Being of white Western extraction, I knew nothing of this legend before reading the book so it’s probably worth a quick introduction here before I move on to the story.
In Japanese mythology Izanami (female) and Izanagi (male) are husband and wife who through their mating create the islands of Japan. In the course of creating the incarnation of fire Izanami dies. Izanagi, who is bereft without his beloved, travels to the underworld to get Izanami back, but Izanami has already eaten the food of the underworld and can’t return. She asks that Izanagi does not look upon her, but he betrays his promise and lights a fire revealing Izanami’s state of decay. He then flees from her and blocks the passage to the underworld forever trapping Izanami inside. In the spirit of vengeance, Izanami declares that she will kill one thousand people every day. In return Izanagi vows to create one thousand and five people every day to replace those which Izanami takes. In this way Izanami becomes the goddess of death, whereas Izanagi becomes the deity of creation. The story of Izanami and Izanagi is one of both love and betrayal, and it is in this spirit that the story of the Goddess Chronicle follows.
In The Goddess Chronicle, we learn the story of Namima, ‘woman-amid-the-waves’, who at the beginning of the novel is dead. We learn that Namima was barely sixteen when she died and that she serves Izanami in the underworld. In the course of the story Namima reflects on her life and her death, and the anger and betrayal that lead her to her place in the underworld.
Namima tells us of her home island of Yamato, a sacred island far away from the main islands of Japan. The island has two sacred areas: the Kyoida (Pure Well) where Namima’s grandmother, the island’s high priestess or Oracle, lives and serves the Gods, and the Amiido (Well of Darkness) where the island’s dead are laid to rest. Namima’s elder sister Kamikuu, ‘child of gods’, is training to take her grandmother’s place as Oracle. Kamikuu is admired far and wide, and Namima loves her greatly.
The girls, however, are soon separated as Kamikuu goes to live with their grandmother in the Kyoido to complete her training. There are also disturbing undercurrents concerning Namima who is charged with delivering Kamikuu’s food each day but is not allowed to touch it, not even the leftovers, and who is referred to as the ‘unclean one’ for reasons which are not explained to her. The reason, however, later becomes clear. When Namima’s grandmother dies Kamikuu takes over her responsibilities as Oracle in the Kyoido, whereas Namima is sent to the Amiido to replace the secret priestess who resided there, guiding the path of the dead. Namima learns that it is her fate to become the priestess of the Amiido, that from that day forth she would never have any human contact again and that on the day Kamikuu dies she would also have to take her own life. Namima, not surprisingly, does not want to accept this cruel fate.
Her fate is doubly cruel as in the intervening period she had fallen in love. Mahito is a young man from a disgraced family on the island. His mother’s duty was to produce a back-up Oracle, in case anything happened to Kamikuu, but she only ever gave birth to boys. As a consequence the family is disgraced and Mahito is unable to go fishing with the other men. Instead he meets Namima on her path to throw away Kamikuu’s uneaten food and begs her to give it to him so that he can give it to his mother who is pregnant. Namima breaks her vow to throw away the food and gives it to Mahito. Later, they eat leftovers together and eventually they fall in love. When Namima is condemned to the Amiido, she is already pregnant. Such a fate is forbidden her, and if discovered she and the child would be killed.
Instead Namima and Mahito steal a boat and run away together. On the ocean Namima gives birth to her child, a girl who she calls Yayoi (deep of the night). After the birth Mahito kills Namima, and this is how Namima finds herself in the underworld. At first she is confused, but as she later discovers (thanks to the 'kind' assistance of Izanami) Mahito returned to the island and passed the child off as his mother’s. His family status was then reinstated, and he was able to marry Kamikuu. Yayoi, Namima’s daughter, is condemned to take Namima’s place as priestess of darkness in the Amiido. Namima’s anger takes her to darker places than the underworld. She learns that love and betrayal lead to anger and vengeance, in a sad repetition of Izanami’s own story.
Separately to Namima’s story, the novel also follows the fortunes of the human incarnation of Izanagi: Yahinakiko. Izanagi has lived as a human for so long that he no longer remembers that he is a deity. In his travels he makes many women pregnant, and in her anger Izanami destroys all of his wives after they have given birth. Eventually Izanagi recalls his origins and discovers what Izanami has been doing. He returns to the underworld to try to assuage Izanami’s terrible anger, but changing the mind of a goddess is tricky even for another deity.
The Goddess Chronicle is a fascinating story which makes for a highly engaging read. Natsuo Kirino is an excellent writer, able to spin dark stories with a magical touch. I think it is tricky to present mythologies to non-native audiences, but Kirino manages to do this without it turning into an academic exercise. The background to the myth is delivered in a seamless way, and with enough detail to enable the context to be followed quite easily. The character of Namima is both sympathetic and not. She breaks the rules and pays the price, but at the same time her fate seems unnecessarily cruel and it is hard not to feel she suffered unfairly. Her desire for vengeance is both understandable and wrong and has terrible consequences, and it is in this shadowing of light and darkness in the characters that Kirino really comes into her own. She is able to create complex, multi-faceted characters with apparent ease and this makes them both believable and interesting to read.
Of the books that I’ve read in the Canongate myths series, this is definitely one of my favourites (Weight and The Penelopiad being the others). An interesting and well executed book, with a fascinating story The Goddess Chronicle receives a god-like 9 out of 10 Biis.