“You should read this,” she said as she handed me the Goddess Chronicle by Matsuo Kirino, translated by Rebecca Copeland (2013). My friend was down-sizing her library with a book give-away event and I was trying to avoid acquiring too many more books, but my curiosity was pricked by the recommendation of an author I hadn’t yet read.
In the Goddess Chronicle, Kirino re-writes the Japanese creation story of Izanami and Izanaki, bringing it new life through the story of the goddess’ helper, the human Namima.
Born on a small, poor island, Namima’s family, gender and birth order mark her for a different life from the rest of the islanders. Part of the tension in the first section of the story is the way this fate is gradually revealed through the words and actions of Namima’s family and the other islanders. We see Namima’s confusion, and understand moments before she does that her desires and her hopes for her life will be confounded by the role that is placed on her by the accidents of her birth.
It is Namima’s wrestling with this fate, her reaching out for something different, that drives the novel. I’ve learned that Kirino is among other things a crime writer, so it is not surprising that she excels at constructing a story based on frustrated human desires, betrayal, and the careful revealing of information. I was pulled in by Namima’s uncovering of her role and her reactions to the multiple betrayals she experienced. I was less engaged by the (shorter) section on Izanami and even less by the story of Izanaki. The story of Izanami and Izanaki is important, I just felt impatient to get back to what really mattered, especially during the long excursion into Izanaki’s human life.
It is Namima’s journey that is the heart of this novel. Izanami’s story matters because it is by learning about Izanami and coming to see the similarities and the differences between them that Namima comes to an understanding of her own story as a woman. Namima doesn’t get the easy heaven of those who fulfilled their life purpose and died without regret; instead she develops the hard-won knowledge and self-acceptance of a woman who has taken her own longings seriously. Namima has experienced her own anger and compassion and ultimately, through her service to this angry goddess, she is able to hold the story of all women who have been betrayed by fate, culture, and their family’s desire for respectability.
Rarely have I experienced such a thorough, honest investigation of the hurt and anger of women caught by patriarchal expectations. At times I was seething with frustration at the sticky way fate has of bringing us to where it thinks we were meant to be all along. At the same time, I appreciated Namima’s humanity and felt glad and relieved that we are not gods and goddesses, just, perhaps their helpers, able through our own experiences to touch the deeper reality they represent.