Last Winter, We Parted
LAST WINTER, WE PARTED is a dark, grim work about a horrendous crime --- two of them actually --- as well as some bizarre though extremely interesting sidebars. It is written by Fuminori Nakamura (and presented in this country through the very able and welcome translation efforts of Allison Markin Powell), who, as it happens, is one of Japan’s most honored authors. Nakamura’s THE THIEF received a great deal of critical acclaim here, as did the more recently published EVIL AND THE MASK. LAST WINTER, WE PARTED is as different from those two novels as they are from each other, though all three share the quality of being memorable, haunting works.
"LAST WINTER, WE PARTED transcends the mystery genre and, like the butterflies that make up the opening (and subtle closing) of the book, starts as one thing and becomes something else."
The book begins with a young writer who has been tasked by his editor to pen an investigative biography of Yudai Kiharazaka, a somewhat highly regarded photographer who is a now-notorious death row inmate. Kiharazaka has been convicted of murdering two women who had been his models. Both were killed in a horrendous manner and for an almost unspeakable reason: they were burned alive as Kiharazaka attempted to photograph their essences while they were in their death throes. The writer, from the first time he encounters Kiharazaka in prison, almost immediately appears to be in over his head on several fronts, personally and professionally. Kiharazaka seems to speak in riddles, at some points revealing key motives and at others speaking vaguely about a seemingly jumbled worldview.
Meanwhile, a manufacturer of life-sized dolls (yes, those types of dolls) holds an enigmatic key to the puzzle tantalizingly just out of the writer’s reach, at least at first. The writer’s editor is either very focused or a real problem to work with; actually, he is a bit of both, and more. As for the writer, he remains just a step or two away from breaking off a relationship with a woman while he takes up with another, an enigmatic femme fatale with a close connection to Kiharazaka that is both obvious and otherwise.
The narrative of LAST WINTER, WE PARTED is also a bit of a departure from the norm. It is is told from a number of points of view, which include the writer’s and Kiharazaka’s, as well as that of one other who is introduced somewhat late in the book. His or her identity reveals much, if not all, as to what has taken place before the ultimate grim irony of the tale is revealed in the final pages, a revelation that echoes back to the beginning of the book.
With an economy of prose and pages, Nakamura has created a work that one can read during the course of a long afternoon and will remember for a lifetime. LAST WINTER, WE PARTED transcends the mystery genre and, like the butterflies that make up the opening (and subtle closing) of the book, starts as one thing and becomes something else.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 24, 2014