On a tiny island shaped like a teardrop, two sisters face very different fates. Beautiful Kamikuu is chosen to be the Oracle, representative of light and life. Her sister, Namima, is the “impure one,” yin to Kamikuu’s yang, and must tend the dead and show them the way to the underworld. Kamikuu may have love, relationships, children; Namima is forbidden any human contact.
But Namima rebels. She eats the delicious food meant only for Kamikuu and grows strong, falls in love with a man of the island, and finally flees her fate in a tiny boat, bearing his child on the open sea. Then, without warning or explanation, he strangles her. Namima finds herself in the Realm of the Dead, a bitter and angry priestess to the goddess Izanami, who has power over human life.
Here in the gloomy underground halls of the dead, Namami hears the story of the god Izanaki and his wife Izanami and the first days of creation, when they made the islands of Japan from the drops that fell from the end of the spear they pulled from the sea. Everything was fertile and full of life then: every action created new and wonderful godlings. But it was a dangerous time, as well, and when Izanami gave birth to the fire god, she was burned so badly that she died and was relegated forever to the Realm of the Dead. When Izanaki reacted selfishly to her death, fleeing her decomposing body, she vowed to use her new powers to kill a thousand people a day in his land of the living; in return, he vowed to impregnate fifteen hundred women a day. Izanami had the last word, though: her thousand victims were always the women he had taken to wife. Namima listens to this story with vicious, bitter understanding. She, too, has been betrayed by a man. She, too, is powerless to understand or reconcile, and can only use her lesser powers to torment.
The world that Natsuo Kirino presents in The Goddess Chronicle is split in half: woman, yin, earth, death, and defilement; contrasted with man, light, yang, sky and sea, and purity. Namima says, “You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came.”
Almost every review I’ve seen for this book says that it’s feminist. To be honest, I don’t see it. I’ll give you this much: it’s told partly in a woman’s voice, and the woman is trying to escape a fate imposed on her by family and religious structures. But in fact, the main moral message of the book is this: all women suffer, and they cannot escape that fate. The goddess suffers most of all, specifically because she’s a female goddess. Kirino says it over and over: “The trials she has borne are the trials all women must face. Revere the goddess!” I am not at all sure what is feminist about saying that women are doomed to be relegated to the Realms of the Dead, impurity, suffering, and pain, or the corollary that the pain will make them cynical and vicious. If someone has a different viewpoint on this, I’d love to hear it.
The other problem with this book is that it suffers from a stiff, repetitive style. It’s part of the Canongate Myth series (the reason I picked it up — it’s the fourth of the series that I’ve read, and I’ve loved all the others.) Repetition can be a tool in fairy tales and myths, to reinforce a motif — think of all the things that happen three times, slightly differently, in practically every fairy tale there is! But in this book, it just feels as if Kirino doesn’t trust us to remember what happened at the end of the last chapter. It was awkward and confusing.
Has anyone read other books in the Canongate Myth series? Have you read this one? What did you think?