originally published on goodreads on March 15th 2017
Why am I so intrigued by this life?
Maybe it’s the anonymity– the sense I am not myself.
I am uninhibited as Miyu. People expect me to be sour and hateful, and so pay me no mind.
As Miyu, my hatred can run free.
I’m absolutely obsessed with the anime/manga InuYasha (just ask my boyfriend Ryan or ANY of my gal pals). It’s referred to as a “feudal fairy tale” and it follows the adventures of high-schooler Kagome Higurashi in modern day (errrm well, actually, circa 1990) Tokyo. One morning at her family’s shrine she’s inadvertently pulled down the Bone-Eaters Well by a demonic centipede. Kagome is dragged down the rabbit hole and is spit out in the “Warlord Era”, 15th and 16th century Japan– also called the Sengoku Jidai period. And proceeds to go on a whirlwind adventure with half-demon InuYasha, a cursed monk Miroku, a playful fox demon kiddo named Shippo, and a demon-slaying prodigy named Sango who’s seen more than her fair share of tragedy.
So when I heard tell of a new YA story A Darkly Beating Heart about another Japanese teen being transported through time to the feudal era I was FREAKING out!
WELL unfortunately, Reiko is no Kagome, and A Darkly Beating Heart is no InuYasha. *sad face* So if you’re looking for that, turn back now and crack open one of those mangas instead. It’s far more satisfying and infinitely more exciting, terrifying and hilarious.
In keeping with the title A Darkly Beating Heart is a very dark and heavy read. This may be triggering for some readers as Reiko OFTEN completes suicide and seriously harming herself. She actively cuts as a way to cope with the extreme anger and anxiety that she harbors inside of her, and she talks a lot about it, and spends a lot of time describing what the sensation is like for her.
This is definitely a read for a more mature YA audience. Reiko’s mental illnesses are tastefully handled BUT a little bit vanilla and by the books. It’s as though Lindsay Smith did a lot of reading on the mindset of teens with mood disorders and self harm tendencies and slapped together the most commonly reported influences and how it manifests itself. To give you an understanding of what this is like, had Lindsay given Reiko anorexia her experience would completely be ALL about Reiko being a “perfectionist” or having a poor relationship with her momma– two VERY prominent influences, but by far not the ONLY experience. But uh nope. Reiko’s revolves around cliches and what’s most common.
Take this scene:
My scars are gone.
My thighs are blank. A cold, pale surface, unmarked.
No. No. Those scars were my history. My memory. How could they just be gone? The pressure swells against my eyes. Tears blur my vision as I search my stomach and hips. But there is nothing. None of the beautiful cuts I wrought the day I found out that Chloe had moved on, or the day Hideki came home from Iraq for good. Who am I without my scars? Who am I without proof of my suffering?
Reiko is an 18-year-old hurricane of rage– her college plans didn’t pan out (she got wait-listed) ; the girl she had a fling with during a summer art camp disintegrated in a hot minute (and Rei, needy, clingy, constantly angry Rei got dumped for some punk rocker babe who definitely had it more together); and she’s had a notoriously rocky relationship with her elder brother, Hideki. She ends up going to stay with her uncle, aunt and cousin Akiko in Shibuya, Japan to take a break from the drama back home in Seattle, Washington. Reiko gets roped into a her glamour girl cousin Akiko’s project to launch, aki *LIFE* rhythm, her attempts to brand herself as a rising j-pop star and idol. With a trio of young twenty-somethings Mariko, Kenji, and Kazuo, Reiko is dragged along to an Edo-period village called Kuramagi, the backdrop Akiko insists on for her interviews and music videos.
Reiko has a laundry list of grievances of all who’ve hurt her and wronged her. Very little of which might I add is explicitly said in the book. The synopsis says she’s bullied in her highschool but we never see one SINGLE incident of any classmate being cruel to her. Honestly, she doesn’t even come across as a misfit. Soooo why is she so freaking miserable? Because she’s such a negative & hateful girl!
Reiko is NOT AN EASY character to like. Being in her negative headspace and endlessly looping thoughts of how PISSED. OFF. SHE. IS. made me want to punch her in her boobs. Her hate is one-dimensional and considering how that’s the trait that MOST describes her, it’s an EPIC fail. Reiko is angsty, judgemental and FATALLY self-righteous. She victimizes herself and throws herself a pity party on every page. She doesn’t EVER entertain the thought that she is in ANY SHAPE OR FORM RESPONSIBLE OR ACCOUNTABLE FOR HOW SHE FEELS. Cripes I wanted to throttle this jerk!
In keeping with how it’s the Big Bad Mean World VS Lonely Broken Little Reiko, she goes on to say that she spent so much time with Chloe, her summer lovin’ girlfriend, because “She. . . possessed me.” ACTUAL quote from the book. She goes on to muse, “I wanted to change myself. Into whatever she wanted me to be. Anything to be loved. To be needed. Then I would have the power. Then I could possess her too.” Talk about melodramatic.
At first, upon reading the summary it was exciting to see that she identified as bisexual and how she’s a woman of colour but those little check boxes of diversity aren’t enough to redeem the novel. In fact, Reiko kinda seems to hate that about herself. Her sexuality I mean. Consider this one scene she has with Kenji, an ENDLESSLY patient and kind guy who tries to be friends with her:
Kenji is quiet for a few moments. “But you do, um…You do go for…” He winces. “Guys.”
I stare at him.
“It’s okay if not. It’s just–” His shoulders draw forward as he curls around his drawing. “I saw how you and Sierra talk, back at the inn, and I thought maybe…”
The tightness inside of me is imploding, crushing down hard, turning into a diamond of hatred. “Is that a problem if I’m bisexual?” I ask. “So what if I like boys and girls?” The darkness flashes through me– the rivers and rivers of blood. I raise my hand in front of me and imagine it drenched in red. It feels sticky, throbbing, alive. Yes, this is what I’m after.”
Akiko is depicted as a ditzy and haughty wannabe pop princess. Her friend Mariko spends her time punching in trashy romance stories on her cellphone and playing shy and sweet when she’s not desperately trying to kiss up to Akiko. It’s not hard to see why Reiko dislikes both of the girls, but her extreme hate for them is WAY out of line. It only makes Reiko seem like an unapologetically hateful person. Which, uh she is. Which, BEE TEE DUBS isn’t exactly a lovely quality that makes us as the readers root for Reiko. One afternoon at Kuramagi Reiko steps off the forest trail while out with her Akiko and Mariko while the three are tromping around trying to film footage. She finds a sort of shrine inside a hollow, and a curious little object in it: “I spot a stone: black speckled with gray, round on one end, curved, shaped like a comma. The buzzing in my head mingles with the sounds of rain. Something inside me shifts– a weary sigh, a head falling against a pillow after an exhausting day.”
Then, she finds herself transported back in time! OMG! To Kuramagi while it’s at the height of the feudal era! Holding, then dropping the rock allows Reiko to time-jump from the past back to her present. In Kuramagi she inhabits a woman named Miyu– a gal who is angry AF (like Reiko!), disliked by every single person who meets her (like Reiko!), and who openly hates said people and wants to punish them and hurt them (like Reiko!).
Maybe Miyu’s revenge can help me in my life here, too. She’s focused in her hatred. She’s in total control. If I can master my plans as Miyu, then I can master my plans as Reiko, too. I can make everyone pay.
Finding out Miyu’s backstory is one of the things that kept me reading A Darkly Beating Heart, and while it turns out to be a pretty darn shocking and tragic tale it’s also not completely original. It reveals what a warped, twisted, girl Miyu was, and makes Reiko start to see sense that she doesn’t want to become equally crazy AF. Finally. But before that, Reiko spends every waking moment either living out Miyu’s life in Kuramagi (Having sex with a hot samurai! Scrubbing the tatami mats! Wishing her dad and every single villager screws themselves and go to hell!), or being a moody and argumentative Reiko. Especially to Kenji and Sierra, the two people who constantly go out of their way to be inclusive and kind to her, and who genuinely care about her. For some godforsaken reason.
They have insightful and positive advice that challenges Reiko’s defeatist and straight up miserable and bratty AF persona. It’s BEYOND frustrating that Reiko refuses to take it to heart and opts to continue on her path to destruction. Take this fascinating scene at a Shinto Shrine in the Kuramagi Village
“He’s [the priest] trying to teach you about the . . . dual nature of the kami. He wants you to understand that every kami -every spirit- has two natures, all right? That when you respect them, then they are more than happy to love and nurture and care for you. But he is worried you have a–mmm, how did he phrase it? A darkened neglect in your heart.”
I laugh like dry leaves rattling. Yeah he’s really got my number there. “Whatever. It’s not like I believe in that shit.”
Kenji makes a strained expression. “It doesn’t matter what you believe in, Reiko. If you feel angry, if you’re destructive, then you draw anger and destruction to you. Your mindset creates your reality, no matter what you believe.”
* the bold emphasis is my doing
Her sexy samurai boy toy in Miyu’s world ALSO has his two cents
“We are all defined by our past,” Jiro says. “Our choices and circumstances have made us who we are. It’s all there, carved into us indelibly. But . . . it is not our present. Nor our future. That’s what we control. It’s what we choose to do with the past that’s entirely up to us.”
I will say that Miyu intrigued me. If it weren’t for her storyline, and Reiko piecing together what happened to make Miyu so hated and vengeful, I wouldn’t have had any incentive to keep reading. We find out that Kuragami village is in fact, cursed. There’s a darkness to it that comes from Miyu’s lingering spirit, which, as it turns out possessed Reiko when she came into contact with the rock and continued to carry it around everywhere. So again, Reiko’s actions are justified as being NOT HER entirely, but AGAINST her. Once again we’re expected to see Reiko as a poor little victim. Not buying it. She was far too proud of the violence and pain she inflicted on everyone around her, and totally got her rocks off imagining causing MORE hurt and hatred to spread. Consider her reaction when she speaks with the Kuramagi museum historian, who helps her fill in the gaps and tells her the WHOLE story about Miyu.
“The younger sister [Miyu] –that demon– she doesn’t drink the poison. The blacksmith dies, but she lives. Then she goes to her sister, Fumiko, and tells her– ‘Now we are even.’”
“So she seduced her sister’s husband just to get him to kill himself?” I ask. “Why?”
But I already know why. Because I have that same blackness roiling in me like hot tar.
The ending of this novel is rushed to say least, and attempts to slap a bandaid over the mess Reiko made and make us cheer for her. But it’s hard to go bananas over a girl who assaulted her ex-girlfriend’s new girlfriend, stalking her and then smashing her head with a glass bottle, and who spent hours designing bloody, gorey, and hateful collages of her peers and her school being hurt and punished. It’s hard to feel any kind of happiness or even a SEMBLANCE of liking Reiko, especially considering many of her conversations with people who befriend her are disgustingly emo.
Look at this exchange between Kenji and Reiko more than HALFWAY through the book.
“Hey. Are you okay?” Kenji touches my arm, gentle.
“For fuck’s sake, Kenji.” I curl my arms around my legs. “Stop trying to be my goddamned nanny.”
He lowers his pencil; his face looks so soft, like if I punched it, my fist would sink in.
“Can I just try to be your friend?” he asks.
Friends. Right. Everyone wants to be friends with the antisocial whackjob.
“I’m not a good person, Kenji,” I tell him.
My final verdict? Don’t waste your time reading this novel. It’s a broken record of self-loathing and resentment, featuring an entirely flat and unlikeable protagonist, and a cheap and flimsy ending that doesn’t fit the tone of the book. There’s no pay off to get from reading this book. If you’re looking for an infinitely better ancient Japan and time travel book, you’re infinitely better off with InuYasha.
all images from google images