Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura

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It’s a photographer’s job to capture the essence of their subject. Whether that be human being, animal or inanimate object, it’s the duty of the photographer to manipulate or do whatever is needed to get the picture required for that shoot. In Fuminori Nakamura’s new novel, Last Winter We Parted, we broach this discussion with a twist: is it possible to capture the spirit of a person, the ethereal vision of what a person looks like while they’re burning to death. Taking huge influence from an old Japanese short story called “Hell Screen”, Nakamura’s new novel attempts to answer this question, as disturbing as it might be.

The story goes that a young writer is assigned to write a book about a rather acclaimed murderer. A man named Yudai Kiharazaka sits on death row for the murder of two young women. Not only did he brutally burn them alive, Kiharazaka who’s a photographer by profession, attempted to capture the essence of their death. However, trying to uncover the truth behind Kiharazaka’s intentions in this murder proves tough as he runs into the man’s sister, a dollmaker and other shady characters that all hold a tiny key to the truth in this bizarre crime.

Last Winter We Parted is Japanese literature fiction, dripping with philosophy and existentialism. Sure a good bit of it could be categorized as crime fiction, but the bleak, questioning nature of the novel is what really makes it worth reading. The story balances a mix of narrative and backstory using archived documents, both to tell the narrator’s story and to explain the story at large. At first the novel starts out very straight forward, our narrator is given an assignment to write a book about this man named Kiharazaka and his crazy involvement in the murder of two women. He starts out by going to the prison where the man is being held, attempting to interview him. However this doesn’t prove to work as easy as he expected. Kiharazaka isn’t as forthcoming with information about the case as we’d like him to be. He expects the writer to open up about himself before he’ll give any juicy bits of information up. Though the writer doesn’t spend a great amount of time with Kiharazaka who comes off as more or less insane, the other people he meets that are also involved in the case don’t give him any decent details either. What starts out as a straightforward, linear story quickly turns into a convoluted mystery by the end of the book.

The easiest thing to say about Last Winter We Parted is that it’s not a typical crime novel. It does have the basis of crime within it, but there are more important questions being asked during the duration of the story. Questions of identity, loyalty and sanity. It becomes clear to the writer about half way through the story that this isn’t a clear cut case. Even when the waters become muddied, the writer continues to persist until he finds the truth even though he probably doesn’t want to.

Rating: 7.5/10 – Last Winter We Parted is a gamble of a novel. It’s unorthodox story and process of telling work both in it’s favor and against it at times. It’s mix of philosophy and crime are something not normally seen, but in this case are highly enjoyable. While it might not be the simplest novel to read, it’s definitely easier to breath than a lot of the formulaic junk that populates the shelves.

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