Title: A Darkly Beating Heart
Author: Lindsay Smith
Synopsis: No one knows what to do with Reiko. She is full of hatred. All she can think about is how to best hurt herself and the people closest to her. After a failed suicide attempt, Reiko’s parents send her from their Seattle home to spend the summer with family in Japan to learn to control her emotions. But while visiting Kuramagi, a historic village preserved to reflect the nineteenth-century Edo period, Reiko finds herself slipping back in time into the life of Miyu, a young woman even more bent on revenge than Reiko herself. Reiko loves being Miyu, until she discovers the secret of Kuramagi village, and must face down Miyu’s demons as well as her own.
Huge thank you to Macmillan for sending me an ARC of this book for review!
Okay, so I know that this book doesn’t come out until October, but I HAD to read it as soon as I got it. For those of you who DON’T know, I lived in Japan for seven years and I generally find a lot of issues with YA books set in Japan. I’ve kinda taken it upon myself to read them and pick them apart. So I went into this book both excited and leary because I don’t believe that the author has actually lived or even spent a significant amount of time LIVING in Japan (I did read her author’s note and she went there for a vacation, I know).
That said I REALLY enjoyed this book. This is the story of a troubled Japanese-American girl who goes to Japan to stay with her Uncle and cousin while she tries to work out her issues. She’s waiting to hear back from colleges and planning her own perfect revenge against… well you find out later on who and why, but for most of the book you just get glimpses at those who wronged her.
Reiko is an angry girl. She’s a cutter (trigger warning) and she spends A LOT of time thinking about how she’s going to kill herself and get revenge on her ex-girlfriend, brother, parents, and later this extends to her cousin and friends. We find out that Reiko had a passionate relationship with a girl named Chloe who unleashed Reiko’s dark artistic side. Reiko is swept up in Chloe’s orbit and does thing that she normally wouldn’t, which later gets her into a lot of trouble.
While in Japan Reiko works for her Uncle’s web design company and spends time with her cousin and the other employees who are also employed by the cousin, Akiko, who is trying to become a J-Pop idol. Akiko has her own lifestyle brand that she’s trying to sell via her youtube channel, blog, cell phone novel and website. The other employees are basically her entourage as she tries to find ways to get her name out there. And Akiko’s boyfriend, who is a washed up idol himself, gets Akiko a gig at a culture festival in a remote Japanese village.
So the group travels to Kuramagi village where Reiko is swept away to another time, the Edo period, where she inhabits the body of a young woman who is filled with her own rage and revenge plots. Reiko loves being in Miyu’s body and feeling all of Miyu’s hate. At first, when Reiko time travels, she thinks that her antidepressants are making her crazy and she gets rid off them. But we later find out that something much more sinister is happening, something that happens every year at the festival, something that the village is desperately trying to stop.
So the story was good, I really enjoyed it. As for the writing I thought that the whole”I walk the path of vengeance, I must get my revenge” parts were a LITTLE heavy handed. Like, we got it, Reiko is angry. And while I liked the glimpses of what had happened, and we do get the full story by the end, I was sometimes frustrated that I didn’t have a full picture and was just filling in gaps and wasn’t quite sure if I was even right.
As for the Japanese aspects a lot of them were pitch perfect. My only two nitpicks are:
1. Why in the world did Smith keep using the world “pallet” for a futon!? This boggled my mind to no end. She uses TONS of Japanese words (well) in the text with either direct translation or translation that follows not too long after. But the entire time they were sleeping on “pallets”. And I really don’t see why the word futon wasn’t just used, defined, and then used for the rest of the book.
2. Names. In Japan it’s Surname followed by Given name. There are many different honorifics that are used much like Mr/Mrs, Sir/Ma’am etc. Usually these name conventions fall away around foreigners. In the group and at work they should have ALL been referring to each other by Last name + san. Instead they all use first names. I chalked this up to them being around Reiko and falling out of the convention because of her, but from my own experiences even around myself the Japanese people (especially while speaking Japanese) would not have used first names. So while Reiko was being called Reiko and using everyone’s first names, Akiko would NOT have been calling Kenji by his first name unless they were VERY good friends and even then she probably should have added “kun”.
And then in the Edo period it was very odd that everyone was again using first names. Especially for Miyu who was so hated. And she would not have called Jiro by his first name from the very start. I’m not even sure if she would have used it after they got closer.
So yeah, those were my only two real issues. The rest of the Japan stuff felt very authentic and true to my experiences as well as those around myself. I enjoyed that Smith didn’t get too heavy with the “weird” Japan and that she really seemed to have a grasp on the lifestyle brand culture that Akiko was going for. Major props.
Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!
I love books set in Japan despite having never visited. There’s always something very atmospheric and lore driven, which A Darkly Beating Heart follows to a tee. I loved how well put together the story was, I thought the characters were very interesting, and the use of time travel was something quite special given our heroine goes backwards in time.
I loved Reiko and I thought she was a great character. I feel like we get such a huge sense of her emotions, her desire for revenge, and how she is struggling to define her anger given her circumstances. I also loved the Miyu half, because I think it perfectly manifests angry and aggression in a way that feels almost symbolic given Miyu’s story. They were a neat fusion of characters, and I liked how Smith blended them together.
I also thought the way idol culture was presented was really interesting here. Aki comes across like quite the nutjob at times, but it’s because you spend a lot of the story seeing her as her brand rather than a person. She’s malicious and calculating at times, but it’s interesting because you see it more from her being a businesswoman than just that type of person outright. It also doesn’t help that certain characters really pander to her branding, which made for some great moments in the story. Personally, I liked Kazuo. He likes the PlayStation Vita, which makes me happy given that no one seems to love the Vita.
While I think the ending wraps up a bit too neatly, I do love this story and I think Smith has a knack for doing balanced research and transforming it into an interesting narrative. I loved reading her Author’s Note where she explains where her inspiration came from, as well as the extent of her research went. There’s a great sense of tension and emotion in A Darkly Beating Heart and if you love books that feel dark and mysterious, check this one out.