It’s Paris, 1989, and retired police inspector August Jovert is living out the remainder of his life in Paris. Terse, quietly lonely, and haunted by his professional past in Algiers, he receives a letter from a daughter he didn’t know he had. Pulled along by a force he isn’t even able to acknowledge, Jovert is soon being told stories by his neighbour – the retired law Professor Tadashi Omura – about his life and his one-time friend Katsuo Ikeda. In his oddly intoxicating presence, Jovert hears these stories in the twilight, forgetting himself and losing time as the tale becomes increasingly complex.
The stories and lies Jovert, Omura and Ikeda tell themselves and each other cross and clash and weave in between as the story jumps between decades and across Japan, Algiers and Paris. Just as we are introduced to Jovert and the scraps of his memories of his time in Algiers 30 years ago, Omura tells the story of himself, and therefore of Ikeda, former classmate and successful novelist, mad, manipulative, popular. Across different decades and continents, these three men’s stories are told, jumping across and echoing into one another.
What connects these stories is that the men have lived lives of regret. Their professional lives had all previously dealt in stories – as an inspector/interrogator, a lawyer and a novelist – but the act of story-telling as they age and feel their lives wrapping up is the first time they have been in control of their own narratives.
If this retelling sounds scattered or distancing, I suppose it is. But this book is so much more than the sum of its parts because of Henshaw’s writing. His prose is lyrical and poetic, crisp and glowing. It takes you down paths and into themes you didn’t even realise because you were admiring the view. There is a fog that permeates Jovert’s life when Omura is telling him his story, and in a way this fog clouded around me too: this story was confusing, seemingly contradictory and so complex. Were there mistakes or was I mis-remembering? Why was I reading this?
But the writing… the writing. Short sentences, no unnecessary words, minute moments, one on top of the other before moving on to the next one.
In Ikeda’s house, Sachiko is paused in the darkness in the middle of the night, right on the precipice of tipping into a world of realised fear:
She holds her breath, listens. There is no breeze. No movement. No leaf stirs. The surface of the pond is mirror-still. The lunar edges of the water-lilies lie flat and snug against their reflections.
Jovert is sixty-three, hearing Omura’s story and remembering his past life in Algeria; moving there with his wife Madeleine. In the library in Paris, he traces a map of the capital, time bleeds together:
Later their luggage would arrive. Four shrouded Arabs suddenly in the courtyard, sitting there as quiet as assassins, smoking. The gate still open.
From the balcony, the dockyards. Nearby, the Villa les Tourelles. He holds his fingers out. A reverse trigonometry. He draws a small circle on the map with his fingertip. He leans down. Ties to prise the streets apart. But the map resists. It wont give up its secrets that easily to him.
There is still a mist about my recollection of this book. Trying to capture those pure moments of luminous writing, trying to express why this complicated story about three old men just beguiled me.
I bought this book purely on the back of a review in The Saturday Paper. Not only was this a book I wanted to read, this was a review I wanted to write; an experience I wanted to have. The idea was enrapturing: a disparate fragmented story pulling itself together, folding over and within, giving clarity and beauty through it’s crisp, poetic pose. Everything else about the book was not for me: the hyped-up, non-specific blurb; the big, friendly text. Now I’ve finished it, I can see why they have gone for the mega-mystery woo-woo blurb: because it is just so hard to capture what it is that this book does.
This book is beautifully written, and is a fantastic example of an almost subtly self-aware narrative: an awareness of the explicit nature of story-telling. But The Snow Kimono is also three old men telling stories. It can be distancing, reticent, confusing, but the sharp poetry of the writing just pulls both characters and readers in. It is really stories within stories, compelling the tales of their darkest moments out of these men. Their whole lives are told over and over – the story and then the truth – as the narrative winds an layers and eventually reveals itself to us.