Book review: The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino (Canongate Books)
Namima grows up on a tiny island in the shape of a teardrop. Like a teardrop, the island embodies beauty, sadness and tragedy. It looks like paradise, but is characterised by poverty and cruel customs.

Namima and her sister Kamikuu were born into a family of priestesses, and when Kamikuu is six years old, she is kept in isolation to be trained as the next Oracle. Namima is devastated: not only has she been parted from her beloved sister, but she is considered the “impure” one.

In the years that follow, Namima delivers Kamikuu’s food to the Oracle’s hut. It's her last connection to her sister, but she hates that Kamikuu is always given a sumptuous meal while the islanders go hungry.

Kamikuu never finishes her food, but according to island law Namima must throw the leftovers into the ocean because no one else may touch it.

Namima eventually breaks the law in an act of compassion that leads to further transgressions and a secret love affair.

Then, when Kamikuu becomes the new Oracle, the priestess of light, Namima is told that she is now the priestess of death and darkness. They are opposites in balance – yin and yang. As priestess of the darkness, Namima must watch over the dead alone, never to return to the village.

Angry and terrified, she escapes, only to die a tragic death. Because of the circumstances of her death however, she finds herself in the Realm of the Dead, where the goddess Izanami makes Namima her priestess.

She learns the story of Izanami and Izanaki – the Japanese creation myth based on the concepts of yin and yang, but also a tragic love story that ended with Izanami trapped in the Realm of the Dead.

Namima tells us that:

"Izanami is the woman among women; she is all women. It would not be an overstatement to say that the fate she suffered is the fate that all the women of this land must bear."

That seems a bitter thing to say, but as Namima warns, everything she says represents her goddess:

"This tale may be spun from my words but I speak for the goddess, the one who governs the Realm of the Dead. My words may be dyed red with anger; they may tremble in yearning after the living; but they are all, each and every one, spoken to express the sentiments of the goddess."

She can speak for Izanami because her story parallels the goddess's, but their bitterness probably means that this story is biased. Izanami claims that she suffers specifically because she a female god, and almost all the women in the novel share some parallel with her story – they suffer because of their social duties as women, because of the men they love, because of childbirth.

Izanami’s role as a goddess was to produce life, yet her first child died and Izanami later ‘died’ in childbirth (being immortal she lived on in the Realm of the Dead). Similarly, the traditional role of women is to produce children. As the Oracle, Kamikuu has the role of life-giver – she must produce the next generation of priestesses.

Another woman on the island essentially ‘curses’ her family when she fails to have a female child as is her duty. Her family is shunned and left to starve, but she gets pregnant again and again, desperately hoping for the girl that will save them.

In the archipelago, men go sailing to fish and trade, while women stay on their islands. Each role has its perils, but being trapped in one place is the fate of women: Izanaki trapped Izanami in the Realm of the Dead; Kamikuu spent most of her childhood in isolation; Namima was barricaded in the burials grounds.

Men and women's roles are an expression of yin and yang, which is a concept of harmonious balance, but also the cause of the characters' unhappiness. Kamikuu is ‘pure’, Namima is impure. Kamikuu is a life-giver, Namima must watch over the dead.

Izanami and Izanaki are the male/female opposites whose union created the human world, but Izanami’s role changed when she became the goddess of death, alone and miserable while Izanaki travelled the world, finding new lovers.

While I appreciated the themes at work here, I mostly enjoyed this book as pure story.

Like myth, The Goddess Chronicle has the sheer power of a good narrative, not only in Namima’s story, but in Izanami’s and, later, in Izanaki’s.

It’s grim, but not depressing. It is simply a good read, albeit with a solemn tone.

This comes largely from the narrative style, which lies somewhere at the intersection of raw myth and the novelisation of myth.

Although the author has fleshed out details like characterisation and dialogue, the story still has the sparse yet grand feel of myth and it’s better to read it as such, rather than as a typical novel.

Supernatural things happen without explanation, there are plot holes and little oddities, but this is the kind of story that doesn’t need to be so rigorous. Just relax and let it carry you.

Read more of Lauren's reviews on her blog.

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