I consider myself lucky to know Our Man in Abiko and was proud to be part of the team he assembled to put #Quakebook together, containing stories of the Great East Japan Earthquake, before signing up again for light editing duties on the Abiko Free Press’s attempt to assess what had changed for Japan since those catastrophic events: Reconstructing 3/11. As the Man mentioned in his review of my own book about Japan and earthquakes, The Teas That Bind, it is incredibly difficult to be honest about a friend’s work. So why trust anything I write about his latest book, Hana Walker’s Half Life 2:46?
I may be a slight bit biased but to miss out on this fantastic story because of such fears would be a shame. By Chapter 4, as our hero Hana hurtled towards the seventh dirtiest lake in Japan, trapped inside a Mercedes with a lecherous hoodlum, I was hooked. Reading the book on my phone for the final seconds before work, or burning the candle late into the night to finish the last few chapters, testifies to the gripping nature of Hana’s quest. It takes her far from her Abiko home to find schoolgirl Emi Blackmore, missing in Ishinomaki in the North of Japan, on behalf of Emi’s estranged and distraught father, while getting some disgruntled gangsters off her back and trying to come to terms with her own chequered family history.
Hana’s mission is realistically located in the Japan residents will recognise as the one they sometimes love to loathe, peopled by less-than-helpful bureaucrats, crabby ramen shop grandmas and inept English teachers, bedevilled by mama-charus, noisy pachinko parlours and daytime cooking shows. Tatami mats, onsen, 100 yen stores and ‘nihongo jouzu’: it’s all here. American tourists wear cowboy hats, the yakuza exude menace, and so life for the characters is proceeding in its almost-usual channels as the clock ticks around to 2:46pm on 11 March 2011.
The recreations of that day are note-perfect and will be recognisable to everyone who was in Japan. Interspersing tweets with the story shows characters reacting to real news events and sharing darkly humorous catalogues of exactly what in the kitchen had smashed, just as we did. Half Life has plenty to say about the nature of belonging and nationality, about Japan and her relations with the world, in parallel with the occasionally thorny paths of father-daughter relationships, both real and surrogate. There is more to learn here – about conventions on punctuality, how blood type determines personality, that wallets can be left anywhere to be handed in later with cash intact, Japan’s unique and distinct four seasons and what always happens to the nail that sticks up – than from any etiquette guide. The cosy government, yakuza and TEPCO culture that contributed to the disaster at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is likewise illuminated.
Yet all this is covered without once detracting from the fast-paced tale of Hana’s attempts to find Emi, escape the police and the bad guys, while avoiding getting framed for murder or eaten by kittens (yes, really). And the serious moments never detract from the humour of what is at times a real caper – the bicycle scenes providing exactly the right mix of comedy and suspense – because our Hana is no suave detective, perhaps with more of Philip Marlowe about her than Lisbeth Salander.
In The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler writes, ‘down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’ Abiko’s streets may be less mean than the City of Angels’, but in desperate times, Ms Walker displays those same qualities. Hints have been dropped regarding a sequel, which is fortunate, as with Hana around Japan is sure to remain what Chandler called ‘a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in’.