Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama

The Blurb On The Back:

Five hundred and twenty people died on that mountain.

That sparkling mountain.

1985.  Kazumasa Yuuki, a seasoned reporter at the North Kanto Times, runs a daily gauntlet against the power struggles and office politics that plague its newsroom. But when an air disaster of unprecedented scale occurs on the paper’s doorstep, its staff are united by an unimaginable horror, and a once-in-a-lifetime scoop

2003.  Seventeen years later, Yuuki remembers the adrenaline-fuelled, emotionally charged seven days that changed his and his colleagues’ lives. He does so while making good on a promise he made that fateful week – one that holds the key to its last unsolved mystery, and represents Yuuki’s final, unconquered fear.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s August 1985 in the Kanto region of Japan.  Kazumasa Yuuki is a roving reporter for the North Kanto Times, even though someone of his experience should have moved into management by now.  He’s due to spend the Obon holidays with his friend Kyoichiro Anzai climbing the notorious Tsuitate mountain face but he’s having second thoughts – afraid of its reputation for killing climbers.  Then news comes in that a JAL jumbo jet has crashed in the mountains between Nagano, Gunma and Saitama.  Yuuki is put in charge of the news desk – coordinating his reporters as they head out to the crash site and seek to get a jump on the national press – but is unable to tell Anzai that he can no longer do the climb.  So when he hears that Anzai has been taken to hospital, he fears the worst.  The truth, though, turns out to be even stranger and during the hot summer of 1985, Yuuki seeks to do justice to the reporting of the air disaster while discovering what happened to Anzai and seeking to make peace his own family, from whom he is emotionally distant.

17 years later, in 2003 Yuuki finds himself at the Tsuitate mountains with Anzai’s son, Rintaro.  Forced to confront his fear of the mountain, he also reminisces about the events of 1985 and how it’s shaped his life since …

Hideo Yokoyama’s novel (translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai and originally published in Japan in 2003) is being mis-marketed as an investigative thriller but is more of a literary historical piece looking at journalism in the 80s and its office politics while tagging on a limp middle-aged man in crisis plot such that while it’s an okay read it never catches fire and doesn’t offer much that’s new.

Yuuki never really grew on me as a character, in part because he’s emotionally immature, which he blames on the fact that his father disappeared when he was little and there’s a suggestion his mother turned to prostitution or became a good time girl to support him.  He also has strange outbursts of temper and has physically abused his son, which he now feels guilty about and wants to rebuild their relationship.  I suspect that the culture difference may have something to do with it, but I found that I couldn’t warm to any of that – especially as he’s so weak at almost every key decision point – and it got to the point where I thought it was just self-indulgent.  His relationship with Rintaro seems intended to counter some of this and humanise it, but for me it just reinforced what a jerk he is that he has to use another man’s child to try and reconnect with his own son and even then, has a better relationship with that other kid.

I did enjoy the sections that look at the operation of a regional newspaper and the egos and petty internal politics that shape its operation.  Yuuki’s rivalries with the sub-editors and department heads add some life to the text, especially when it becomes apparent that some of the team are trying to subvert the current reporting in case it overshadows the achievement they enjoyed in the 1970s when they broke 2 big stories.  I also liked how this was a reflection of the local political scene as two heavyweight politicians have their own factions within the newspaper.

The female characters are pretty under drawn as dutiful wives with the exception of Chizuko Yorita who aspires to be a reporter (I won’t spoil how her story ends, but while I don’t doubt it’s realistic, it still disappointed me).  The plane crash itself is very much a background event and although the marketing buff suggests there’s some kind of investigative element, there really isn’t – in fact the Kanto Times journalists are often behind their counterparts in terms of breaking developments.

It’s not that this is a bad book – the writing is mostly fine (although some of the dialogue is a little stilted) – but there’s just no spark to it and I think that’s in part due to the mis-marketing of it, which sets up unrealistic expectations.  Had I known I was getting a more ruminative, literary book I think I would have read it differently and had a different experience.

SEVENTEEN will be released in the United Kingdom on 8th February 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the ARC of this book.

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