Life as Suzume knew it ended when her father and cousin died in an attack on their estate, when her beloved father was declared a traitor, and only the actions of a mysterious cinder-man saved her from following him into death. And yet, it can still get worse, when her mother remarries, when Suzume finds out the terrible truth about her new step-father. Twisted by her hate, pain, and need for revenge, Suzume dives into her lessons on the enigmatic art of shadow-weaving and sets herself on a course to bring about the destruction of all those who’ve caused her pain. Forget being rescued by the prince- Suzume would rather have blood.
My first exposure to this book was its description as a Cinderella retelling. A Cinderella in classical Japan? Yes please! And it is what it said it was- but SO MUCH MORE. Those coming into the book expecting Cinderella and step-sisters and a handsome prince at the ball with find plenty to recognize, but this is a retelling that steps outside the bounds of its original form and becomes something amazing and unexpected. Cinderella forms the foundation, true enough, but this is a story that stands on its own two feet. Honestly, if it weren’t for knowing it up front, I doubt I would have extrapolated Cinderella from the story.
This is a setting that comes alive, rich and elegant and full of the tastes, smells, even the textures of another land. Titles are an instrinsic part of the names, not to be dismissed or regarded lightly, and every layer, cut, and style of clothing is full of meaning. We’re welcomed into a culture rich with formality, one with precise rituals where every step has a reason and a purpose. It’s an education in culture without ever being slavish or pedantic, the information always used to specifically build the layers of a scene or character.
One of the things I really loved about this book was the precision of language. Poetry and songs play a part in things, and just as the rhythm and the choice of the individual words and phrases are so essential in these forms, so they are through the course of the book. Every word, right down to the symbolism of the names, is deliberately and carefully chosen, so the entire book reads like a form of poetry. When it seems like there are layers beneath the words, it’s because there are.
What sets this book apart from other retellings or other more or less fantastical settings is Suzume’s deep need for revenge. It drives her, forces her to choose again and again to turn from happier roads because of her determination to see this thing done. Despite the advice of those who love her and want to see her happy, despite the chances she has to take those tentative first steps into a better life, she can’t turn aside from her plans. She fully expects to be destroyed herself in the process, and that brings a grim fatalism. She can’t let herself love others, can’t let herself be happy, so she’s perfectly willing to take horrendous risks and do horrible things in the name of revenge.
But that drive, that need, deeply hurts, which is where the most impressive aspect of this book comes into play. Suzume is ultimately self-destructive, targeting that pain and rage and guilt into her own body, which has betrayed her by continuing to live where her father and cousin didn’t. Even as she assigns the blame to her enemy, she assigns equal guilt to herself, and as she intends to punish her enemies, she punishes herself.
You see, Suzume cuts herself.
And what really blew me away is how well it’s handled in this book. We’re inside Suzume’s head, so it would have been really easy to try to excuse or justify the behavior. For herself, Suzume tries just that. As the readers, though, we get to see how hard she has to work to convince herself that it’s okay, we get to see the consequences of her actions, the pain her injuries cause those who love her. Perhaps most importantly, we also see that cutting is an addiction as crippling and compelling as any other. It’s not a hobby- it’s a problem. It’s an outward expression of a severe inward pain with no other outlet, and it seems like such an easy solution. It eases the pain for a little while, but then it comes back even worse and it becomes so alluring to do it again. You think about it when you’re not doing it, and whenever there’s a problem, the wish to cut is there. Suzume lives through this, as do the people who love her whether she’ll allow them to or not, and it’s not something that finds an easy- or a complete- resolution. Within a cherry-blossom world of shadow-weaving and illusion, it’s so starkly real that it transforms an otherwise even-tempered (if dark) story into something amazing.
Normally I don’t like to talk about endings, but in this case, I think I have to a little, because I love it. It’s not necessarily a happy ending. It’s real and it’s bittersweet and more than a little painful, but it has the potential to become something beautiful. It’s REAL.
Until next time~