Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2010

Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, the cover’s dreadful. Mitsuyo Kakuta may be one of the most lauded novelists of her generation, but the English edition of The Eighth Day comes sheathed in what looks like a vanity publisher hand-me-down. Don’t, for heaven’s sake, let that put you off: this is engrossing, finely wrought fiction, and well worth your time even if the window dressing isn’t.

First serialized in The Yomiuri Shimbun, The Eighth Day went on to sell over 130,000 copies after it was released in book form in 2007. It’s the second of Kakuta’s works to get an English translation, coming on the heels of the 2005 Naoki Prize-winning Woman on the Other Shore. Though it’s unlikely to make much difference to Kodansha International’s marketing campaign, the English release comes just as NHK is filming a TV drama adaptation of the book, due to start on March 30. Good luck to them: though the broad strokes should be easy enough to capture, the nuances of this tale of child abduction are likely to get lost in the transition.

In the opening pages, Kiwako Nonomiya sneaks into the apartment of her married lover for a glimpse of his baby daughter Erina. Spurned and confused after being convinced to abort her own illegitimate child, she ends up running off with the infant.

The first half of the book becomes her story, told in a day-by-day first-person account that doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight. Christening the child Kaoru, Kiwako first stays with a friend in Tokyo, under the pretense that she’s escaping an abusive relationship. Fearful of being caught, she moves on to Nagoya, then seeks refuge at a cult-like commune for women—a turn of events that is convenient to the novel’s central themes, but struck me as a bit unnecessary.

We’re kept so close to this kidnapper that we can’t help sympathizing with her, nodding along as she attempts to justify what she’s doing. However, the repercussions of her act are brought into relief halfway through the novel, when the action suddenly moves forward to the present day, and a grown-up Erina takes over the narration. Now a 20-year-old student estranged from her biological parents, she lives an emotionally drained existence that’s intermittently brightened by an on-off affair with a married man.

An encounter with another of the commune’s former residents revives memories of a past that she’s been unable to escape, and Erina looks back at the tough childhood she spent after rejoining her real family. It’s a sobering, conflicted tale: “The kidnapping for me started on that day when I was taken to an unfamiliar port by a group of grown-ups I didn’t know,” she says. “It wasn’t what happened before that day, but what came after.” The impossibility of living a “normal” life becomes clear when she is first reunited with her mother: “The woman’s cries grew into howls; terrified by this wailing grown-up, my bewilderment reached its peak, and standing there in silence, my whole body stiff, I peed in my pants.”

Though it lacks the momentum of the first half of the book, this second part is in many ways richer. Erina’s own recollections are supplemented by notes on the kidnapping case, which fill in many of the details that had eluded us before, smoothing out narrative implausibilities in the process. There are present-day dramas, too: when she finds herself pregnant by her lover, it raises the prospect that she is doomed to repeat Kiwako’s mistakes.

As gripping as a thriller, The Eighth Day also serves as a meditation on what it means to be a mother. There are no guiltless parties in Kakuta’s world, and she dares to ask if a child-snatcher might actually make a better parent than the biological ones. Contemporary Japanese fiction doesn’t get much better than this.