Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
This book casts a spell from the start. You are engaged immediately with Auguste Jovert, retired Parisian cop, who receives a letter from a stranger claiming to be his daughter. Distracted, he walks into traffic to wake in hospital and be discharged on crutches. Disorientated and vulnerable he is approached by a diminutive Japanese gentleman, Mr Omura, a former law professor who, like the Ancient Mariner, constrains him to listen to his story.
If there was initial relief to find an author who could write, now, with Omura in Osaka, narrative and dialogue flow. The country and its people are described exquisitely. This could be a novel written by a native Japanese with a superlative command of English. Nothing is forced, nothing jars. All the same, as with the best writing, you lose sight of the style in the delights and distresses of the story, in the personalities of the teller and his listener. These two are ambivalent: strong characters but they could be good or bad or shaded, killers or victims or both.
There is a third dominant male: Omura’s closest friend in their student days. Katsuo was young and handsome with deadly charisma. Women were enchanted, exploited, abandoned – until he caught sight of Sachiko, a peasant child, granddaughter of the maker of the snow kimono.
For a long time there are no crimes, only delicately evolving situations, but behind the fun and sometime cruelty of student life, behind the subsistence living and grind of the rural poor, there is the sense of a monster lurking. Action is racked up suddenly and disastrously with a winter storm, landslides, a bus crash and the drowning of the village idiot. Sachiko is a passenger in the bus, being taken to Osaka by her father where he will sell his last kimono.
The book is a series of cliffhangers in time and space with sections devoted to the participants. You go with the flow: Paris, Japan, Algiers – where Jovert was a skilled and dreaded interrogator of prisoners in the Algerian war. Algiers - and the question of the child that may have been conceived during that bloody time. And back to Katsuo in his glory years, a celebrated author and careless lecher in his opulent mansion. Then Paris in present time: Jovert spellbound, asking questions ignoring answers, seeking absolution in the possibility of finding a daughter he never knew was lost.
Despite the depravity, the cruelty and the pitiful suffering, beauty and innocence are exemplified in the snow kimono with its design of white orchids. There is a suggestion of atonement, perhaps forgiveness. A highly original book full of small sensations with the bonus of being a joy to read.