Jenn Reads: Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland

I’m a voracious reader, but my reading skills lately have been the pits. This cold winter weather getting anyone else down in the dumps?

I finally finished a book last night, from the stack of books that have yet to be finished. This particular one, Shinju, by Laura Joh Rowland, was supposed to be done for mystery book club two weeks ago. Ooops.

195979Shinju follows beginning investigating police office (of sorts, his official title is yoriki) Sano Ichiro in 17th century feudal Japan. Sano, a samurai/school teacher by trade, has been given this position by his supporter, a position he is initially unsuited for. He’s not bad at what he does- no, it’s that he’s a little too good at what he does, especially when things should be better left untouched, as his boss requests.

Sano is supposed to write a closing report on a shinju, or a double romantic suicide. Typically shinjus are when two people of different classes fall in love. Knowing their love will never survive and their families will not accept the relationship, the lovers commit suicide. This shinju looks like a suicide, but Sano is hesitant to close this case- and for good reason. Sano will risk everything: his job, his name, his parent’s reputation, and the lives of others, to solve this case.

The back cover of the book has a quote saying how “exotic” it is, and I suppose for some who are not familiar with the time period, it could be. My senior thesis for my history major in college was on a facet of Japanese history, so this particular era was familiar. For me, reading this book brought me back to my studies and I was thrilled to be immersed in 17th century Edo (now Tokyo). This is a world that is much different than ours, and much different than even 17th century Europe. Led by the Tokugawa regime, the government is a military dictatorship with strict rules. Religion, philosophy, and culture, for the new reader, may seem odd or strange. For several of our book clubbers, how Sano struggles throughout the book to justify his need for revenge and thirst to solve the mystery with his filial piety (extreme devotion to one’s elders, especially parents) and what is expected of him, was weird and unnecessary. But this is something a man of his time would have struggled with, and is realistic.

Many commented that the writing style was a bit elementary, but this is Rowland’s first published work, and will develop further in the series. Is this a masterpiece of mystery writing? No, but it was enjoyable for

what it was. More important to me than the mystery was the setting and time period, which I felt Rowland was spot on with.

Rating: 3 of out 5 stars. Enjoyable, but unnecessarily dense in some places where the plot line could have moved faster. Loved the time period and setting.

See you in the stacks,

Jenn

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