Description: Seventeen-year-old Tark knows what it is to be powerless. But Okiku changed that. A restless spirit who ended life as a victim and started death as an avenger, she’s groomed Tark to destroy the wicked. But when darkness pulls them deep into Aokigahara, known as Japan’s suicide forest, Okiku’s justice becomes blurred, and Tark is the one who will pay the price…
Review: Japanese culture is rich in ghost lore, complete with an interesting taxonomy to classify them. It sounds tame and organized, but the ghosts themselves are anything but–I have been far more freaked out by Japanese ghosts in film and books than by the typical American fare. Why? I don’t know . . . I guess Japanese ghosts seem way more pissed off about being dead.
This is most certainly true in The Suffering, the sequel to Rin Chupeco’s fabulous The Girl From the Well. You might remember that in the original novel, Okiku–a seriously vengeful ghost–is a dead Dexter-esque type who finds herself intrigued by Tarquin, a Japanese-American kid in danger from a whole boatload of other vengeful spirits . . . intrigued enough to save him. The Suffering picks up in Tarquin’s point of view. It’s been at least a few months since the end of The Girl From the Well, and Okiku is still hanging out with Tarquin, the two of them now a dynamic duo of justice: Tarquin and Okiku stalk murderers, and Okiku dispatches them to hell. There are a variety of side plots; however, the main thing is that Kagura, Tarq’s mentor, is missing in Japan after leading a troop of American paranormal investigator types (I imagine them as those plumbers from the SyFy ghost hunting show) on a ghost hunt.
Tarq and Okiku to the rescue! Yeah, sounds kind of fun, except that it’s creepy as hell.
Okay, so about the novel. I tore through The Suffering in less than 24 hours. There’s something about Chupeco’s writing and plotting that’s engaging and compelling, although I very much miss the creepy horrifying flatness of Okiku’s voice. You still get it here and there, but I found myself wishing The Suffering was told from her POV as well. I also understood why it wasn’t, though, particularly in terms of the subplot that had to do with Tarq’s quasi-love interest, Kendele. I’m not 100% sold on Tarq’s voice as a male voice, but it was easy to put that aside, particularly after Tarq and Okiku arrive in Japan (which is about the last two-thirds of the novel).
What I was 100% sold on are the plot and themes. I debated whether I felt the first third of novel was necessary or a distraction, but it really sets up the relationship between Tarq and Okiko, deepening it beyond what we saw in The Girl From the Well. More importantly, it illustrates the dependency the two of them have on each other, for better or for worse. And both of those things are necessary for the second part of the novel, particularly the sacrifices both of them willingly make for each other. Even the romance subplot between Tarq and Kendele served to help highlight the differences between a casual romance and a bone-deep connection.
Justice is a particular concern throughout Chupeco’s novels, and in The Suffering the patriarchy takes a hit. The novel concerns itself with consent in a major way. It’s not only female consent, I should add, although that’s the largest component. It’s very clear that power–the quest for power over others–drives certain characters in this novel, and it’s equally clear that power does not have to corrupt, that men are not animals and they have the power to control themselves. That’s an important statement given a series of messages we’ve been getting lately–that women bring violence and rape on themselves for dressing the way they do, for being sexually distracting, for having vaginas . . . that men are powerless in the face of all that to do anything but react with rape and violence. [spoiler alert] This is a bit spoilery, so look away (last chance!) . . . there is a great juxtaposition between several girls who had been sexually assaulted and/or sexually harassed by a character in the first part of the story and several girls who had been sacrificed in the second part of the story, just as there is an excellent juxtaposition between the male characters who perpetrate these attacks and Tarq’s reaction to having that same kind of power later in the novel. [end of spoiler alert]
I’m also a fan of the equality of the relationship between Tarq and Okiku, which sounds a bit strange to say. After all, Tarq is a human teenaged boy, and Okiku is a centuries old teenaged vengeful spirit. Tarq is a physically weak kid with some paranormal skill, while Okiku can rip a grown man or a ghost apart in half a second. I mentioned earlier, though, there’s a certain dynamic of dependency and sacrifice between the two that ends up putting them on equal footing in many ways.
You may be wondering if The Suffering was just as scary/freaky as The Girl From the Well. The answer is a qualified yes. Why qualified? You don’t get to see Okiku do her vengeful spirit thing quite as often, and I found those scenes in The Girl From the Well incredibly disturbing. That said, The Suffering has its own brand of creeptastic imagery. The dolls are still present and accounted for (something that creeps me out just thinking of it), and then there are passages like this:
I have seen Buddhist altars and offerings before, but never one like this. It mocks the meaning of worship, twisting it until it is nothing short of a personal perversion. Surrounding us are human-sized cocoons. In the beam of my flashlight they writhe in their silk prisons, pushing and prodding against the threads binding them. [...]
Okiku stares intently at the massive demon effigy above us. “Okiku, do you know what this is?”
She doesn’t answer. Instead she continues toward the stone shrine, still entranced by the face looming above us. The altar is stained a rust color, and by the time Okiku speaks again, I realize why.
“This place is a killing field. This place begs for blood.”
See what I mean? The novel is creepy and atmospheric and wonderful. Go read it.
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