Review: ‘Fish Swimming in Dappled Water,’ by Riku Onda

FISH SWIMMING IN DAPPLED SUNLIGHT, by Riku Onda. Translated by Alison Watts.

Riku Onda has been a fixture of Japanese suspense literature since the 1990s, but she found her audience in the Anglophone world with her 2020 English-language debut, “The Aosawa Murders,Translated by Alison Watts and released by Bitter Lemon Press, a small London-based publisher of international crime fiction. “Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight,” a dreamy, circuitous psychological thriller, is Onda’s second work to be translated into English, again by Watts.

The book unfolds across a single night: A man and a woman share a store-bought dinner to mark the end of their relationship, eating and drinking in their empty Tokyo apartment before going their separate ways in the morning. They’ve spent the last year in a state of misery and mutual suspicion, ever since their hiking guide fell off a cliff during a trip to the mountains. Each believes the other murdered the guide, a man they had never met, but who was connected to them in a way that would make death by accident extremely coincidental.

The story reveals itself slowly, elliptically, through alternating chapters from the two main characters’ points of view. We learn the names of the narrators — the woman is Aki, the man Hiro — only 30 pages in, and the nature of their relationship seems to shift from chapter to chapter, slipping in and out of focus and changing with new discoveries and confessions for most of the novel.

The book’s titular image comes from Aki as she considers the distant look in Hiro’s eyes: “I see sunlight flickering through trees. Fragments of the stifled emotion and desire that we do not put into words flit across them, like shadows woven through the wavering light. Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool. Occasionally they rise to the surface with a flick of fins, but it is impossible to see them clearly or count them.” Flickering, fragmented, stifled, wavering, twisting, turning — this impression, more than any particulars of plot or character, is what makes “Fish swimming in Dappled Sunlight” memorable.

Onda is an intriguing author, a genre novelist who writes neither neatly within nor self-consciously against genre conventions. Her narratives are elusive and bewildering, and half the fun of reading them is looping around, testing the walls, engaging and puzzling out their labyrinthine structures. But fans of “The Aosawa Murders” might miss the gripping mystery and eerie, quivering energy of that work. “Fish Swimming” doesn’t lack for originality, but its substance is less compelling than its form. The fish are hard to pin down, sure, and there’s some pleasure to be had in watching them. This is not quite enough, though, to sustain a suspense novel. The fish just kind of swim from place to place, making interesting patterns and a few jumping splashes in a still pond.

All the tension arises from the claustrophobic setup. As Aki and Hiro sit facing each other across the packed suitcase they use as a table, they dig into the past and unravel the secrets that form the core of their identities. They love and fear each other, Aki even believing that Hiro might kill her: “If my death turns out to be an outcome of this night, many small traces of it — the food we ate, and the food we had — will vanish like bubbles of foam.” But what drives the novel is not a mounting sense of danger, but a series of wild epiphanies that fall like stones then disappear, leaving only the vague, lingering feeling that the water has been disturbed.

Steph Cha is the author of “Your House Will Pay” and the Juniper Song mysteries. She is the series editor of Best American Mystery & Suspense.

FISH SWIMMING IN DAPPLED SUNLIGHT, by Riku Onda. Translated by Alison Watts. | 204 pp. | Bitter Lemon Press | paperback, $15.95

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