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A Quicksilver Mystery That Flickers, Flashes, Twists and Turns



FISH SWIMMING IN DAPPLED SUNLIGHT, by Riku Onda. Translated by Alison Watts.

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.

Steph Cha is the author of “Your House Will Pay” and the Juniper Song mysteries. She is the series editor of Best American Mystery & Suspense.

FISH SWIMMING IN DAPPLED SUNLIGHT, by Riku Onda. Translated by Alison Watts. | 204 pp. | Bitter Lemon Press | Paperback, $15.95


Refugees, Ghosts and a Story About Stories




There’s a Vietnamese superstition: If you die away from home, your soul will become restless and won’t leave for the afterlife. Instead, you will be cursed to roam the earth as a ghost, hungry and cold, left without the closure to move on. This folk belief is the starting point of Cecile Pin’s debut novel, “Wandering Souls.”

In 1978, three years after the fall of Saigon, a Vietnamese teenager, Anh, packs for an escape from Vietnam with two of her six younger siblings. The plan: Sail by boat to Hong Kong, where the three will wait for the rest of their family, and once reunited, they’ll all relocate to the United States. Anh and her brothers Minh and Thanh successfully land in Hong Kong, but the wait for the rest of their family stretches longer than expected.

Eventually, bodies are found on the beach of a refugee camp. Among them is the rest of their family, who are buried on foreign ground. From then on, the three siblings are one another’s only family, a bond that is tested once they relocate to Britain, where they must not only survive but thrive because “if the three of them did not achieve success here, their family’s demise had no meaning, no overarching resolution.”

“Wandering Souls” begins very much like other novels about refugees. At its center are loss and the difficulties of starting over, the drudgery of survival and the necessity of assimilation. Pin is observant of how immigration shuffles families. Left without their parents, Anh becomes the de facto mother of the household. At 16, she sacrifices her education to work as a seamstress so her brothers can go to school and, she hopes, become prosperous. “She thought their success might make her own sacrifices worthwhile,” Pin writes, “that it would give deeper meaning to the labor she’d done to provide for them over the years.”

But who is Anh beyond her surrogate motherhood? Unfortunately, Pin gives us little opportunity to find out. We see Anh making her siblings’ favorite dishes and we’re with her as she stays up late worrying over the whereabouts of Minh, her delinquent teenage brother, but we know very little about her desires and the dreams she has for herself.

Yet “Wandering Souls” is more than a story of sacrifice and familial duty. The author has greater ambitions, first signaled in the intricate story structure she builds. Slowly, the novel takes wayward paths into the lives of the family’s lingering ghosts who invisibly observe the three siblings, and Pin mixes in fictionalized documents (like a newspaper article revealing Margaret Thatcher’s xenophobic attitudes toward Vietnamese refugees) that showcase the very real conservative politics of the 1980s. And most surprisingly, as the story unfolds, the voice of a new narrator begins to creep in, one that pulls from the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum, the “Iliad” and Joan Didion. Soon it becomes apparent the voice belongs to a writer, one preoccupied with loss: what it looks like, the grief it creates and the meaning — however tenuous — we give it. This narrator shares a telling quote by Didion: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.”

What emerges is something special — a polyvocal novel, an essay on inherited trauma and a quiet metafiction about telling stories we don’t own. At times, it’s unclear exactly where Pin is going — for instance, there’s a superfluous thread about American soldiers serving in Vietnam — but we follow because Pin’s novel is less about the story and more about how the story is made. Reading it is like watching a writer at work as she tries to give loss a plot and make meaning out of details. This proves to be more fascinating than the story of three siblings acclimating to their new home.

“Wandering Souls” asks: How should we tell refugee stories? Why should we tell them? And to whom? And, most important, what should we do with refugee stories, especially when years have passed and those who lived them are gone?

Eric Nguyen is the author of “Things We Lost to the Water.”

WANDERING SOULS | By Cecile Pin | 226 pp. | Henry Holt & Company | $26.99

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‘Biography of X’ Rewrites a Life Story and an American Century



X had a 1994 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art; she wrote seminal novels under various pseudonyms; one of her scripts was filmed by Wim Wenders; she produced records for Tom Waits and David Bowie (and wrote the lyrics to “Heroes”). She discovered and recorded a singer who resembles Karen Dalton. She corresponded with Denis Johnson and was photographed by Annie Leibovitz; she crashed Andy Warhol’s parties and spurned Warren Beatty’s advances. She was everything everywhere all at once. She would never use a door if a window were available.

By late 1996, X is dead. The biography that emerges a year later, by a man named Theodore Smith, infuriates C.M. It’s lightweight and literal, and it’s a joy to watch C.M. attack it. She calls it “radiant with inanity.” She says it reads as if Smith “has mixed up a palette of pastels and given himself permission to brighten a Rembrandt.” She notes that he gets crucial facts wrong.

This is a magpie novel, one that borrows snatches of text, that tinkers with reputations, that moves historical figures around in time. When C.M. writes that Smith’s biography is “page by page, line by line, without interruption, worthless,” some readers will recognize these words, altered just slightly, from Adler’s 1980 takedown, in The New York Review of Books, of Pauline Kael. I’m on the Kael side of this divide, and this repurposing, linking Kael with a hack biographer, rubbed me the wrong way, but that’s life, and it’s nit-picking, and it’s a whole other freeway.

C.M. sets out, in her grief, to report her own biography, a project she refers to as “a wrong turn taken and followed.” Her reporting takes her out into an America that is recognizable, but barely. Like Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” this is a mighty work of counterfactual history.

There is room here only to sketch the outlines of the world that Lacey convincingly projects onto the page. The country was divided, in the “Great Disunion of 1945,” into Northern and Southern Territories, and a wall was constructed between them. The South has become a tyrannical theocracy: Women wear long dresses, the radio plays only church hymns. Lacey employs photographs to ghostly, Sebaldian effect. One image is a satellite photograph of America at night, in which the Southern Territory is completely dark; it’s like looking at a nighttime image of North and South Korea. Lacey spoons out the horror:

On that autumn day in 1945, the quiet orderliness began. Phone lines were snipped. Radio stations were shut down — some by violence and executions, others by willing consent. Local newspaper production ceased. Electricity and running water were rationed in the small number of homes that had any to begin with. Sunday church attendance became mandatory. Libraries were purged of unlawful texts. Schoolhouses were abandoned — all education took place in churches now. Armed guards stood attention at the few places where it was possible to cross the border; snipers were stationed along the rest of the wall. No one was allowed in or out, and those who dared to defy these orders were shot dead.

Lacey, whose previous novels include “Nobody Is Ever Missing” and “The Answers,” has long been interested in characters who grew up in religion-deranged families or were otherwise off the grid. We learn that X grew up in the Southern Territory — born Caroline Luanna Walker, in 1945 — and that she was a rare escapee.

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A Sumptuous Historical, a Sweet Paranormal, a Gorgeous Bit of Horror



There is nothing like the power of a well-set sentence, where every shining word is thoughtfully placed. I offer some of my favorites from this month’s romances, the better to tempt you with.

We begin with a bit of mournful poetry from a legendary king of England. Because why have enemies to lovers when we could have rival medieval monarchs to lovers during the wars of the Angevin Empire? SOLOMON’S CROWN (Dell, 368 pp., paperback, $17), by Natasha Siegel, explores the relationship between Philip II of France and Richard the Lionheart — the queer love story we get hints of in “The Lion in Winter.” I cannot believe this book exists. I want to wrap myself in velvet to read passages aloud beside a blazing hearth that’s taller than I am. Quaffing is absolutely called for.

The prose thrums with the best kind of heartbreak: “I simply brushed a kiss across his temple, left the room, and went to war with a man whose hips were still inscribed with the shadow of my fingertips.” It’s staggering the space that “and” makes between “left the room” and “went to war”: a whole chasm in a single word.

These men are flawed on a grand scale. Philip is melancholy and controlled, Richard tempestuous and violent with an appealing poetic streak to undercut the bloodthirstiness. Their romance is a sin and a crime and an abuse of power in nearly everyone’s eyes; betrayal and tragedy lurk around every corner. And yet there are moments of breathtaking loveliness: a kiss by a frozen woodland stream, light pouring through a stained-glass window, every acid-bright cameo by Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Siegel’s book is geographically expansive, but Freydís Moon’s latest horror-romance, HEART, HAUNT, HAVOC (self-published, 157 pp., paperback, $13.99), keeps everything within the walls of a single house, as a trans not-quite-exorcist with a fraught past finds himself unable to resist the mysterious, nonbinary owner of the building he’s been hired to cleanse. Buildings, of course, are easy metaphors: “He still felt half-framed and hollow. As if his body was a home with too many unused rooms, too much open space. A place still under construction.” And later: “Haunted places never failed to recognize haunted people.” How appropriate to a trans narrative, this fluidity between humans and homes, the one blending into the other across physical boundaries.

Dark romance gets its charge from the friction between innocence and violence. But this doesn’t necessarily require a character to be solely one or the other. Each lead in Moon’s eerie novella bears goodness and darkness in different ways: Colin banishes ghosts and demons using holy powers, but his past is a stain he carries with him. His meeting with lovely, lonely Bishop unlocks a series of bloody secrets both would rather keep hidden.

This is not a fluffy romance. There is animal sacrifice. There are creepy visuals that would make Guillermo del Toro green with envy. The book is deeply concerned about people being made monstrous, a very rich, queer place for a story to go. It knows the weight of terror, and what survival costs, and still wants you to feel that life — and love — are worth it.

Sinister houses were a feature in Diana Biller’s debut, “The Widow of Rose House.” Her newest, HOTEL OF SECRETS (St. Martin’s Griffin, 416 pp., paperback, $17.99), gave me a perfect jewel-box world set in 19th-century Vienna.

Maria is the fourth generation of her family to run the Hotel Wallner, but memories of that glorious past have faded with the years. Now, as the winter festive season begins, Maria is determined to reclaim her beloved hotel’s place among the city’s aristocracy. She has grand plans and a capable team — but there is treachery afoot, there are spies aplenty and secrets from the Wallner family’s past that threaten not only Maria’s business but her very life.

Oh, and a dark-haired, stoic, virginal American Treasury agent whom she absolutely refuses to fall in love with.

I wanted intrigue from this book, and I got it — but there was also more charm and sly humor than I was expecting. Maria is the kind of character who, when she learns her guests are having trysts in the linen closet, dreams up cunning ways to make the linen closets more tryst friendly. Eli, our American agent, is the perfect uptight foil for her sumptuous creativity and one of the year’s best grumps; it was a pleasure to watch him unravel.

One passage in particular sums up the reason I and so many others love historical romance: “Later, they would wake up in the real world, with headaches to nurse and bills to pay and petty quarrels to fight, but right now they were in the magical fairyland of the Hotel Wallner, and they felt as though they never needed to leave.”

I’ve saved the sweetest book for last. BITTER MEDICINE (Tachyon, 272 pp., paperback, $18.95), by Mia Tsai, centers on Elle, a descendant of the Chinese god of healing who makes magical glyphs for a fairy bureaucracy and secretly pines for Lucien, a handsome, half-elf agent. When the glyphs work too well, saving Luc’s life but revealing Elle’s existence to the dangerous family members she’s running from, she and Luc will have to atone for the sins of their pasts while working out what they truly mean to each other.

There are so many joys in this paranormal. The wealth of languages, mythologies, religions and magicks are a weight that balances the emotional tenderness. Healing magic, rather than fighting magic, takes center stage — and without spoiling things too much, it’s also one of the rare paranormals to feature a heroine who loses rather than gains power. Tsai does not flinch from this grief: “The overhead lights cast her shadow, faint and watery, across her threshold, and that’s how she imagines she looks: magic-less and broken, a ghostly husk of herself.” In a subgenre that so often makes supernatural power the answer to problems, how refreshing to find one that says being mortal — being human, and happy, and safe — is purpose enough.

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