Saturday, January 15, 2011

Now You're One of Us

Finding a good book these days, it seems, is also a matter of destiny... sometimes, you buy a book on impulse only to find out later on that they cut the price in half and there's still a whole shelf of it available at the store. Other times, you ignore that one book that turns out to be the last remaining copy and by the time you decide to go back for it, it's gone and already on the special order list, or worse, it may even be out of print. I was on the hunt for such a book thinking, "I should have bought it then", when the cover art for this paperback caught my attention. I couldn't, for the life of me, tie it in with the book title, so I picked it up so as not to go home empty-handed, all the while eager to discover how that bar of soap figured into this story about a girl and the family she married into. And  after reading the novel, let me just say, "oh boy, what a connection." 

They say all families have their own rituals, secrets and credos, like a miniature religious cult; these quirks may elicit the mirth or mild alarm of guests, but the matter is rather more serious if you're marrying into a household,[1] particularly one with a history like the Shito family, as newlywed Noriko would come to discover ...

Twenty-six year old Noriko was, by all accounts, nothing but lucky---not only did she marry a man whom she fell in love with at first sight after an arranged meeting, but she also managed to become the bride of a wealthy and respected family. And though she initially had reservations marrying into such a close-knit family (the Shito household was composed of eight people that included the elderly), all her doubts soon disappeared after meeting them for they all seemed like good-natured people, so she didn't think twice about living with them under one roof.

For the first two months following her marriage, Noriko was in a state of marital bliss. Her in-laws treated her well and spoke of her highly, while her husband doted on her and loved her in a way that can only be likened to devotional worship. As far as everyone was concerned, Noriko married well and above her social status; she thought so as well, and could not have been more content to belong to such an illustrious family, until one of their tenants, an ice vendor, winds up dead under suspicious circumstances, shortly after trying to warn her about the Shitos...

It was all a matter of family. It was all a matter of people who shared the same blood.

Now You're One of Us offers a chilling tale of marital compromise and conformity set in the quiet suburbs of Tokyo, wherein Noriko's picturesque little world is shattered and carefully reconstructed to accommodate an understanding of what it truly means to become a Shito. This 239-paged paperback is a shocking immersion to an abnormal family culture, it forces you to continuously guess and speculate upon the secret harbored by the said family, and leaves you curious about the fate of the book's mentally overwrought protagonist, who, by the way, could end up as either the story's harried champion or heedless victim.

Writer Asa Nonami does quite well in setting up this macabre thriller by essentially keeping readers in the dark and systematically revealing only what is necessary. She leaves out the truth till the last few chapters of the book to  momentarily unveil and forever seal in the unspeakable. In doing so, the sinister dealings of the family and the reason behind their behavior are largely insinuated rather than spelled out which in turn cultivates a sense of dread and foreboding on the reader. Noriko's fear and confusion permeates through, as the story is told from the point of view of a young bride who's convinced that something evil and horrific is lurking behind the scenes, even when there's evidence to the contrary. Paranoia sets in. And readers can only take in what Noriko sees, hears, and feels, such that the narrative  turns into a mental battlefield. Her mindset constantly shifts; her emotional state, highly volatile.

A huge section of the book is devoted to recording Noriko's thought process, beginning with her rude awakening to the less than desirable attributes of the people she call her family. There's a series of events that would generally arouse suspicion and cement her fear---from waking up in the middle of the night to find the whole clan secretly convened to wondering why people from the neighborhood would drop by at all hours to pay respects to the old matriarch of the family. Make no mistake about it, Now You're One of Us certainly comes with a number of story elements typical of gothic novels to make it sufficiently eerie and disturbing. The only downside to this book is that since it follows Noriko's experience, readers are likewise a slave to the main character's vacillating attitude and emotions which readily translate to bouts of hysterical pondering and dissociative mood swings.

Besieged by fear, Noriko undergoes a form of mental  and physical conditioning, traversing doubt, shame and guilt. She's isolated and forcefully made to accept her husband's value system, and Asa Nonami painstakingly recounts the whole process by describing everything that's going on in Noriko's head. The whole ordeal is as grueling and tedious to a seasoned reader, however, the good news is that this so-called "process of indoctrination" lasts for a relatively short and manageable term. What remains thereafter is the revelation  of what lies beneath the amiable exterior of the Shito family and in the tradition of Rosemary's Baby, the source of all the suspense and horror in this quaint story itself is a kind of evil that's so taboo and primitive, it'll surely leave you reeling. 

[1] Lifted from the synopsis of the book published by Vertical, Inc.


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