There are moments when the colours and sounds are so achingly bright that I am afraid I have died and this is my afterlife, a surreal reliving of everything I have done, mingled with the memories of other people hose lives peaked and faded over twenty years ago.
Some mysteries hit you square in the eyes with an irresistibly cataclysmic opening that leaves you gasping as you try to catch up. Others lure you in, seducing you with a hint of mystery and a taste of rich meaty goodness. The Factory, the debut novel by Paddy O'Reilly falls squarely in the second category. A subdued opening followed by superb pacing and thought-provoking detail makes this a novel to be savoured.
This is the story of Hilda Moore, a young Australian girl who travels to Japan to complete her university thesis based on a barely remembered arts community that had briefly flourished 20 years earlier. Known as The Koba and led by a man named Yasuda, the members devoted themselves to reviving Japanese traditional arts and had shut themselves away in an abandoned factory on a windswept peninsula on the coast of Honshu.
Her aim is to find out what life was like for the members of the group, how they formed and developed and then, why they suddenly disbanded. Mystery surrounds the failure of the original Koba because it followed closely after the accidental death of one of its members and, while Yasuda and the other former members appear to be happy to be interviewed, they remain very tight lipped about many of the details.
Hildas visit and interviews coincide with Yasudas attempts to revive his creation, starting The New Koba and she realises that herein lies her opportunity to gather firsthand knowledge about the group. Running the risk of allowing herself to become less objective in her thesis, she joins The New Koba. Joining along with her is Eloise, her brash friend who has come along for what she thinks will be a wonderful new adventure in The Factory.
Hilda and Eloise are polar opposites in personalities yet they are drawn together by their outsider status as aliens to Japan, looked upon by locals with feelings ranging from suspicion to scorn to outright contempt. Hilda has the advantage of speaking the language fluently, but it seems to Eloise who learns to cope with their tough circumstances more ably. The comparison and growth of the two women throughout the story is an absorbing one and I felt it was one of the more fascinating aspects of the book.
This is an unusual story told through 3 time periods, but nicely crafted to feel tightly plotted. We start off in the present with Hilda under arrest and suffering the hardships of life in a Japanese prison. Next we are taken back to her arrival in Japan and the start of her pursuit for information about The Koba. Finally, through the interviews she conducts we are taken back 20 years to the original Koba where we learn that there was more to the arts community than was first made apparent.
Driving us forward is the need to find out 2 truths. The first is the reason for Hildas arrest. While we gradually become aware that she has been arrested for murder, the details about who and how are withheld and we have to be patient while the story unfolds towards the critical events. The second concerns the death of Tetsuo 20 years ago. Tetsuo was an influential member of The Koba and apparent victim of an accidental fall from a cliff-top. Through her interviews, Hilda begins to wonder just how accidental it was.
The Factory is a methodical story that is well constructed and perfectly captures the vagaries of human emotion while also creating a powerful sense of hope and fulfilment through each members attendance at The Koba. Paddy OReillys prose is tight and her characters are well drawn, coming alive with great clarity as they each tell their story. Adding to the authentic feeling of the story is her attention to the detail with regards to Japanese tradition and attitudes.
Most notable is the strong air of hope and expectation that surrounds the opening of The Koba both 20 years ago and then today, only to be soured by disappointment as the realisation hits that the life they have chosen is a difficult one and great sacrifices will have to be made. The breakdown that comes from everyones unpreparedness is inevitable, but the consequences are fascinating. Its at the point where destructive human nature takes over that the story becomes most instructive.
The rebirth of The Koba begs the question, do we learn from out mistakes? The fate of Hilda when she entwines herself in The Factory after she had been armed with an exhaustive amount of information leaves that question up to us. Paddy OReilly has written a moving story rich in cultural flavour and revealing in human frailties. This is an outstanding debut novel and a wonderful way to start off Thompson Walker, the new imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing.
This review also appears on the Australian Crime Fiction Database at www.crimedownunder.com