Title: A Darkly Beating Heart
Author: Lindsay Smith
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (Macmillian)
My Rating: 2/5 stars
From the back of the book:
“A TROUBLED GIRL CONFRONTS HER PERSONAL DEMONS IN THIS TIME TRAVEL THRILLER ALTERNATING BETWEEN PRESENT DAY AND NINETEENTH-CENTURY JAPAN.”
You can just feel the hatred radiating off of Japanese-American teenager, Reiko. She is consumed by her desperate need to get revenge. On her brother, Hideki, on her ex-girlfriend, Chloe–on basically everyone she knows and anyone dumb enough to get caught in the crossfire.
(Trigger warning: Reiko does mention self-harm and suicide a few times, graphically.)
After a failed suicide attempt, Reiko’s parents are at a complete loss. They don’t know how to even begin to deal with her after everything that just went down with her brother. So when she convinces them that a temporary stay in Japan is the perfect remedy for her to heal herself and sort things out, they ship eighteen-year-old Rei off to live with her uncle in Tokyo. Shinjuku, to be precise.
But with Uncle Satori comes her shallow, entitled cousin, Akiko, who is obsessed with achieving popularity. Together, they work for her father’s business, Satori Graphics, in a small team that creates items such as menus, signs, websites, etc. for businesses. But mostly, the employees do Akiko’s bidding; she basically uses her co-workers as a means to further her career in the “idol” world.
When she lands a job at a cultural festival in the historical town of Kuragami (which doesn’t actually exist), Akiko forces her “minions” to tag along and assist in promoting her brand.
While hiking in Kuragami, Reiko stumbles across an ancient, hidden shrine. There she finds a strange rock that is somehow tied to a young woman named Miyu, who is currently living in 1862-Kuragami. With it, Reiko soon discovers that she can slip into Miyu’s life–into 1862–at will, and quickly becomes obsessed with her. After all, Miyu’s life eerily reminds Reiko of her own, and she loves the thrill in playing the part of someone who seems just as eager to take revenge on those who have wronged her.
So, I have a loooot of feelings about this one, as you can probably tell by my unwillingness to assign a rating. I guess I’ll start with what most attracted my attention to this book in the first place: the setting. Japan.
Over the years, I’ve tried and failed to find a decent book set in Japan. In most of the books I found, it seems the authors relied too heavily on getting pop-culture references in there, and then completely missed the mark on what Japanese culture is actually like. It’s like they’re so worried about trying to convince you that they know what Japan is like that they take the time to make sure the book is overflowing with as many stereotypes as possible, but completely abandon the process of building an engaging plot and characters of substance.
On the positive side, as both a bibliophile and a Japanophile, I can say with confidence that Smith is the first to do an above-and-beyond job in accurately capturing all of the essential parts of Japanese culture. I could sense while reading that she had actually been to Japan or at least done extensive research–maybe even both. (Which was confirmed when I read her author’s note at the end.)
It’s been a dream of mine to one day visit Japan–to hopefully study abroad there–for almost seven years now. My love for Japan started, like most people, with anime, manga, and video games, but over time the language and culture has become my main point of interest.
As someone who has only been able to experience Japan through pictures and videos over the years, this book was the first to make me feel as if I were actually there with Reiko, surrounded by the bustling crowds of the arguably too-polite, and definitely too-hardworking people of Japan.
My familiarity with Japanese history only goes so far, though. In the two Japanese classes I’ve taken throughout my life, more emphasis was placed on modern culture, so my only history experiences come from random bits of my regular history classes, and that “history of japan” video–yes that video. (All you tumblr users know what I’m talking about and if you don’t, please watch here. You are in for quite a treat. XD )
All that being said, I do believe Smith was able to depict the 1800’s in an accurate way, but I can’t say with absolute certainty. And though Kuragami may be an imaginary historical town, there are places like it in Japan, and I can say that Smith did a valid job in authentically representing them. (Smith mentions in her author’s note that she and her husband visited the historical town Tsumago during her honeymoon, so that was her basis for Kuragami.)
Now for the negatives. Like my complaints for the other books I’ve tried to read that were set in Japan, Smith just failed to flesh out her characters and plot for me.
As for Reiko, I was completely prepared for a story about a furious girl, shrouded in rage and bent on taking revenge, but Reiko. Was. Just. Too. Much. It felt like every few paragraphs, we got a reminder of her anger and utter hatred for everyone and everything. But we have no idea why this is.
Instead, we are thrown into the middle of the story with no solid explanations as to why Reiko feels this way. We get bits and pieces here and there of what happened, but it is not until the end that all is revealed. This, I think was a mistake. Reminding readers every few minutes of how angry a character is just doesn’t work if we don’t know why. How are we supposed to understand and sympathize with something we know nothing about?
(Plus, when all is revealed, Reiko just seemed like a complete lunatic to me.)
The other characters, like Reiko, were one-dimensional, and stereotypical. Akiko was nothing but the evil, self-absorbed villain. Kenji was the overly-nice guy who tries to help. Mariko was the girl who willingly throws others under the bus in order to be liked by the “queen bee.” We learn nothing about them other than these facts. Nothing new here.
When I first got the book, I had no idea it was so short. As soon as I saw it, I immediately grew wary. How were all of my expectations going to be met in less than 300 pages? Answer: they couldn’t possibly. The first fifty pages or so were great–the best I’ve encountered in a YA novel set in Japan–even with all of the angst, because I figured, “hey, we’ll find out why soon and she will come to terms with her feelings.” At this point, I thought this was going to be a four-star read.
But as soon as Akiko uprooted the characters to Kuragami, and Reiko became engrossed with Miyu’s life–for no apparent reason that I could understand–the book just. Got. So. Dang. Weird. It just seemed all over the place–how things all go down, how it all ends: so abruptly and nonsensically. Suddenly, as if a magic wand has been waved, Reiko has learned forgiveness, Akiko is nice, and Kenji isn’t the annoying “concerned friend.”
Everything just goes downhill after the first fifty pages.
Conclusion: I have no idea how to wrap-up my feelings on A Darkly Beating Heart. Ultimately, I think if Smith had spent a bit more time planning and editing the plot, this could have been a very enjoyable book. But, alas.
Smith did, however, accurately represent Japanese culture, and was the first book set in Japan to impress me, in regards to that. I guess, if you love Japanese culture, this is a good book to try, but just know Reiko is super angsty, and the story gets very strange, very quickly. (And I don’t mean it in a good way. I usually love strange things.)
Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts! 🙂
(If you’re interested in buying this one, you can use my Book Depository affiliate link here and I will earn a small commission! Any commissions I make, I plan on using for giveaways!)