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  • Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight |  Riku Onda
Fish Swimming Reviews

New York Times: A Quicksilver Mystery That Flickers, Flashes, Twists and Turns. “Riku Onda has been a fixture of Japanese suspense literature since the 1990s, but she found her audience in the Anglophone world with her 2020 English-language debut, “The Aosawa Murders,” translated by Alison Watts and released by Bitter Lemon Press, a small London-based publisher of international crime fiction. “Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight,” a dreamy, circuitous psychological thriller, is Onda’s second work to be translated into English, again by Watts.

The book unfolds across a single night: A man and a woman share a store-bought dinner to mark the end of their relationship, eating and drinking in their empty Tokyo apartment before going their separate ways in the morning. They’ve spent the last year in a state of misery and mutual suspicion, ever since their hiking guide fell off a cliff during a trip to the mountains. Each believes the other murdered the guide, a man they had never met, but who was connected to them in a way that would make death by accident extremely coincidental.

The story reveals itself slowly, elliptically, through alternating chapters from the two main characters’ points of view. We learn the names of the narrators — the woman is Aki, the man Hiro — only 30 pages in, and the nature of their relationship seems to shift from chapter to chapter, slipping in and out of focus and changing with new discoveries and confessions for most of the novel. 

The book’s titular image comes from Aki as she considers the distant look in Hiro’s eyes: “I see sunlight flickering through trees. Fragments of the stifled emotion and desire that we do not put into words flit across them, like shadows woven through the wavering light. Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool. Occasionally they rise to the surface with a flick of fins, but it is impossible to see them clearly or count them.” Flickering, fragmented, stifled, wavering, twisting, turning — this impression, more than any particulars of plot or character, is what makes “Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight” memorable.

Onda is an intriguing author, a genre novelist who writes neither neatly within nor self-consciously against genre conventions. Her narratives are elusive and bewildering, and half the fun of reading them is looping around, testing the walls, engaging and puzzling out their labyrinthine structures. But fans of “The Aosawa Murders” might miss the gripping mystery and eerie, quivering energy of that work. “Fish Swimming” doesn’t lack for originality, but its substance is less compelling than its form. The fish are hard to pin down, sure, and there’s some pleasure to be had in watching them. This is not quite enough, though, to sustain a suspense novel. The fish just kind of swim from place to place, making interesting patterns and a few jumping splashes in a still pond.

All the tension arises from the claustrophobic setup. As Aki and Hiro sit facing each other across the packed suitcase they use as a table, they dig into the past and unravel the secrets that form the core of their identities. They love and fear each other, Aki even believing that Hiro might kill her: “If my death turns out to be an outcome of this night, many small traces of it — the food we ate, and the conversation we had — will vanish like bubbles of foam.” But what drives the novel is not a mounting sense of danger, but a series of wild epiphanies that fall like stones then disappear, leaving only the vague, lingering feeling that the water has been disturbed.”---New York Times (Steph Cha)

 

 “Japanese novels are having a bit of a moment right now and all eyes are on Onda’s latest extraordinary offering. Extraordinary, firstly, because her sparse, poetic prose is not what we expect from psychological thrillers. And, secondly, extraordinary because she manages to pull off a combination of complex cerebral ideas with simple but mysterious storytelling. 

The story takes place during the course of a single night in the claustrophobic flat of a young couple in the process of spending their last night together. At the end of the first chapter we are simply told this is the man’s chance to get the girl to confess to killing a man. From that moment the reader is hooked into the dark intensity of the couple’s present and past relationship and gripped by the mystery of the death of the man from their past. A masterclass in thriller writing.”---Daily Mail 

 

Book of the Month:” There is plenty of other good modern fiction to recommend this month. Riku Onda’s Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight (Bitter Lemon Press) is another original, unsettling psychological thriller, full of dark twists and emotional nihilism, from the author of The Aosawa Murders. The novel, translated from Japanese by Alison Watts, is about a couple who each believe the other to have murdered their guide on a recent hiking holiday.”---Independent 

 

 

"Japanese author Riku Onda, is a challenging work that pits a young man and woman in a battle of remembrance on the final night of their years-long cohabitation in a two-bedroom Tokyo apartment.

Hiro and Aki met at college and were drawn together at once. Their relationship has been less than a romance but more than a friendship. The downward turning point came during a mountain hiking trip during which their guide fell to his death. The event was ruled an accident, but Hiro and Aki think the guide was killed intentionally—and each suspects the other of being the culprit. Their last shared evening becomes an endurance match of interrogation and recollection, each hoping to induce a confession.

“It’s amazing how memory works, isn’t it?” Aki asks Hiro. But the same might be said of imagination. Through a synthesis of meditation and speculation, Aki conjures a breakthrough dream analysis (worthy of Freud or Holmes) that upends not only their respective perceptions of the guide’s death but of their own gothically tangled family histories. Hiro, irritated by Aki’s casual tone, expresses a long-stifled violent rage.

“Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight,” translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts, is more insular than “The Aosawa Murders,” the author’s internationally acclaimed novel from 2020. Hiro’s and Aki’s thoughts roam the existential gamut from impulses of flight to reconciliation to suicide pacts. The committed reader may admire this clinical demonstration of the workings of two mercurial personalities. A less indulgent customer may ask (as does Hiro, near the end of this demanding work), “What did we resolve? And what didn’t we resolve? I can’t make sense of it any more.” ---Wall Street Journal

 

 

“There is a word in Japanese—komorebi—that refers to the way sun shines through the trees, casting a sea of soft, dark shadows scattered with gleams of light, a phenomenon reflected in the title of Riku Onda’s most recently-translated psychological thriller Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight.   

Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool. Occasionally they rise to the surface with a flick of fins, but it is impossible to see them clearly or count them. 

The novel opens with Hiro and Aki meeting for the last time in their now-empty Tokyo apartment before going their separate ways. The previous summer, the couple vacationed in the mountains together and hired a local guide to accompany them on a hike; however, the excursion ended abruptly when he slipped and fell to his death. As the humid night wears on, suspicion of culpability hangs heavily between Hiro and Aki—each believes the other committed the murder. As in Onda’s previous thriller Aosawa Murders, also translated by Alison Watts, structure adds to the suspense. Untitled chapters, told in the first person, alternate between Hiro and Aki taking the role of narrator, each wrestling internally with how much to reveal, carefully analyzing their thoughts before speaking. Onda’s choice of setting—a quiet apartment devoid of evidence of their shared life—is conducive to remembering long forgotten details. Without the distractions of daily life, the characters’ sensory perceptions are heightened, and they become more aware of each other’s movements. When Hiro sees Aki fold a plastic bag, a flashback of her behavior during a break on the hike comes to his mind. Later, she notices the way he slices salami with his pocketknife and recalls a detail from their meeting with the guide. New recollections are also triggered by the senses: the scent of grass, the taste of a cigarette, and the hum of the kitchen fan. A memory comes to life before Aki’s eyes, for example, and she watches the mountain guide making his way through the familiar landscape of the forest. 

I stare blankly at the wall, and an image of the man flashes across my eyes. I see his broad, powerful back from behind, almost like a projection. Shadows filtered through the trees play across his body as he walks ahead of me at an unhurried pace, along the mountain trail cocooned by lush green forest. 

As their memories are gradually pieced together, a narrative of not only their mountain trek, but also their complex relationship emerges. Even though Hiro and Aki remember key events from their own distinct vantage points, they come to a new understanding of their past and the secrets that have been hidden from them. Throughout the book, Onda repeatedly returns to images of clocks, alluding to the complex associations between time and memory. The only remaining object in their apartment is an expensive photo frame with a timepiece. Looking at it, they imagine how their story could have turned out differently. Then focusing their attention to a snapshot from the hike, they consider which emotions shine through—grief or joy, frustration or love. After all, memories, like photos, can be seen through different filters. 

Albums are full of people smiling. But if that’s the only kind of photo you see of the past, your memory gets distorted. You fall under the illusion that everything was always happy and lightness when in fact it wasn’t. There’s always some kind of conflict going on behind the scenes – people being bullied, love-hate relationships playing out and so on. 

While some memories swim to the surface easily, some are distorted by time, and others do their best to remain buried. Ultimately, Onda’s novel centers on uncovering deeper aspects of the past, and readers won’t be able to stop reading until the solution comes to light.” ---Asian Review of Books

 

 “This is a short volume, billed as a psychological thriller. I get why it has fallen into this genre but there is something quite different about this novel that really isn’t easy to categorise. Two people are spending the last night in the apartment where they have been living together. They are about to go their separate ways. Their furniture has gone and the tiny living space is anointed by a simple light bulb. They fetch in food and drink beer and each wants to ascertain that the other is responsible for a recent and traumatic event, which seemingly lies at the root of their subsequent dissonance. They were trekking in a mountain range and their guide died – he fell to his death. Each thinks the other is responsible. We are told that they are called Aki and Hiro but the story floats and bucks around, disorienting the reader, so that nothing is at it seems. Those may well not be their names. Each chapter opens and you have to ascertain from which character’s perspective you are hearing the story and musings. As the night gets darker, so do their reminiscences. They trawl back to their childhoods, which contextualises the current situation. The prose is sharp and tailored, well translated by Alison Watts. It is a discombobulating story that rolls along, inventive and compelling and the title mirrors the ducking and diving as the story progresses – now you see the nub of the story, now you lose the thread. An intriguing premise.-----TripFicton

 

 STARRED REVIEW  “Breaking up is never easy, but when you suspect your partner of murder, it becomes a safety issue. In Riku Onda’s atmospheric novel Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, a couple spends one last night together, each determined to get the other to confess.Hiro and Aki met in tennis club and felt an instant connection. Their conversations flowed and feelings developed, but an unfortunate discovery ruined their courtship. Resolved to pursue the relationship nonetheless, even as it teetered on a razor-sharp edge, they moved in together, took vacations together, and dated other people.

When a hiking trip ends in tragedy, Hiro and Aki’s unasked and unanswered questions begin to poison them against one another. Their separation is slow. With one night left: perhaps the truth will prevail. The mystery of the murder in the mountains proves to be immaterial in the wake of cascading revelations about who Aki and Hiro are to each other. In alternating chapters, the two dance around each other, their relationship, and their memories. Each startling twist is calculated based on which person is responsible for the disclosure. That both narrations are direct is a disorienting, interesting device that illustrates the differences in Aki and Hiro’s perceptions of the same events. Their shared memories, in particular of the fateful mountain trip, play out in reminiscences. Each remembers aspects of their relationship not just as it happened, but also as colored by their current knowledge and suspicions. In this way, the book becomes a deep character study of Hiro and Aki, their motivations, their foibles, and their triggers. Unraveling the complex connections between memory and conjecture takes the better part of the night, and with morning light comes a sense of clarity and finality. Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is an enigmatic novel about memory, perception, and time.----ForeWord Reviews 

 

“In this artful and enigmatic suspense novel, Onda (The Aosawa Murders) pulls the ground out from under the reader by undermining beliefs and expectations concerning her two alternating and potentially unreliable narrators. A young couple about to break up, Hiro and Aki, are preparing to spend their last night together in their small apartment in an unnamed Japanese city. In the first chapter, Hiro concludes his dispassionate account of a mundane conversation between them by wondering whether at some point that night he’ll have to force Aki “to say with her own lips that she killed that man?” In the next chapter, Aki reveals that she lied when she told Hiro she would be traveling to Vietnam with friends as a way to ensure that Hiro, whom she suspects of murdering the unidentified man, doesn’t harm her. Onda judiciously and incrementally fills in the backstory about the man, who officially died as the result of an accidental fall. This tour de force demonstrates how suggesting events can be so much more powerful than explicitly depicting them. Fans of subtle psychological thrillers will be enthralled.”---Publishers Weekly

 

 “A couple meet up one final time, one last night together in which to dissect the past. Their relationship has broken down. Their apartment is now emptied and void of their possessions. All that is left is to get to the bottom of where it all went wrong; a horrific incident in which during a dreamy holiday trekking in the mountains, their guide suddenly dies. The couple each believe the other murdered the guide - but why, and how? What they desire more than anything is a confession.

Perhaps even more so than in The Aosawa Murders - Riku Onda’s previous novel to be translated into English - there is a clinical sparseness to the prose here that keeps the reader in a constant sense of unsettled anxiety. Through a constant drip-feeding of information, with paragraphs often circling around a subject for pages by way of tangents and diversions, we teeter on a precipice of what we think we know, and what we don't know. Resolution is hard to come by in Onda's uniquely creepy psychological worlds, the characters almost child-like at times in the wilful skirting of the usual hard-and-fast truths of adult rationality.

Thus we are pulled, always at the mercy of Onda's puppeteer-like hands, through a plot that slowly - ever so slowly - reveals itself. We might think of comparisons such as Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale - masterworks at never showing more than is necessary at any given time of the worlds that surround their protagonists. The intensity of this claustrophobia was one of the key allures of The Aosawa Murders, and it is done to perfection again here - with Alison Watts’ translation capturing with deft poise the understanding that it is often the simplest of utterances that can convey the deepest unease.

Bit by bit, we get to know the couple at the heart of this story. Though we know their names, (or do we…?) the first-person narrative that flits between their respective points of view sees them melding together into a kind of symbiotic, hydra-like existence. We can never be entirely sure what each is concealing from the other, and yet we know they share a deep bond. Who holds the dominant position, and who is struggling toward the truth? In the constant back-and-forth of their dialogue, we begin to see a sense of how they are ultimately two sides of the same coin.

Do we ever like them as protagonists? That's a more difficult question to answer - but through the time we spend in their company, they nevertheless become the only anchor we are afforded in a plot that is constantly adrift and at angles with itself. The core narrative is hard work for the reader, to be certain, and is given to us asynchronously - are we in the present, or the past? The framing device of the couple sitting in their soon to be vacated apartment, working their way through wine and shochu as they discuss their memories of the trauma that haunts them both, has a kind of weird comfort to it. It is in their recollections that we truly lose ourselves, a space divorced of any solid ground, composed of illusory fragments that loom out of the mists of forgetfulness.

It’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the book that we really begin to get a handle on what is actually at play here, and the various interlocking elements begin to make sense. We finally start to understand not only the true depths of the bond between the couple, but also the dark secret that connects both them and the dead guide. The answers, it seems, lie not in some kind of final confession, but in their childhoods - a mental space that can only be reclaimed through a reconciliation of the difference between ‘fact’ and ‘truth’.

It is very difficult to talk about the massive revelations that the book’s latter half delivers without giving anything away, but suffice to say, when they finally come, it is like a volley of punches to the gut, tearing away any remaining semblance of safety the reader has, and dangling them over an abyss of vertigo-inducing nausea. Onda toys with primal fears; insects, being buried, children in peril - and they terrify all the more because of the repetitive, cyclical manner in which they are employed. Like something from a nightmare by way of a David Lynch movie, the eeriness gets into us like a bad itch.

Although the novel could ostensibly be touted as ‘crime’ fiction, as with The Aosawa Murders, the tone is often far closer to psychological horror. Fans of the likes of Ogawa Yoko will find plenty to enjoy here, and the book’s biggest draw can be summed up in its relentless probing and unpicking of the deepest recesses of morality. What drives us to act the way we do? Who are we really? And can we ever - even with those closest to us - know the inner thoughts of another? Time and again, Onda forces us to confront the ugly truths behind these questions. In doing so, she comes very close to conveying in the textual format what it might mean to be ‘human’, with all the messy, fallible connotations associated with it.”  The Japan Society

 

“Riku Onda’s “Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight” starts off as a murder mystery: Aki and Hiro’s mountain trek is suddenly cut short when their guide mysteriously falls to his death and the couple’s relationship is irrevocably changed. A year later, suspecting the other of the guide’s murder, the pair agree to spend one last night together in their soon-to-be vacated apartment before they part ways forever.

Over the course of the novel, Onda plays with ideas of attraction, truth and memory like building blocks: one piece on top of another in a carefully constructed tower. The chapters stack up in increasingly precarious constructions that defy expectations as the author moves through genres.

The first two chapters reveal that Aki and Hiro are both determined to force the other to confess their crime. It’s a powerful setup, and Onda’s choice to swap perspectives, alternating between narrators each chapter, adds to the tension as the two protagonists probe for what really happened in the mountains.

The truth, however, is murky. The narrators are not entirely reliable even though the readers are privy to their internal thoughts and motivations, and a majority of the story unfolds in flashbacks of that fateful day. The novel shifts from a murder mystery to a psychological thriller as the central characters struggle to face inner truths and the mistrust between them grows. Their relationship twists each time we reach the end of another short, propulsive chapter.

In the third act, Onda once again switches genres as the novel confronts societal taboos and reads more as a philosophical dialogue on desire and self-actualization. To say much more spoils one of the great pleasures of the story — the novel may be compact in page count but overflows with thoughtful implications.

Onda has published widely in Japan across multiple genres including mystery, adventure, horror, young adult and science fiction, and has won numerous awards such as the Yoshikawa Eiji literary prize for new writers in 2005 and the Naoki Prize in 2017. Alison Watts — who also translated “The Aosawa Murders,” Onda’s first major work to be translated into English — deftly handles the clever reversals and shifting perspectives of this intricately layered novel.

In the early chapters of “Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight,” Onda reveals the significance of the title and a major theme that holds together the many plot twists: “Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool. Occasionally they rise to the surface with a flick of fins, but it is impossible to see them clearly or count them.”

Memory, identity, attraction: They are all flickering fish of the mind, changing direction throughout our lives. Elusive but there, they constantly swim just below the surface of our consciousness.”---Japan Times

 

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    Francois Von Hurter
  • Fish Swimming in Dappled SunlightRiku Onda