Japanese author Hideo Yokoyama is probably best known for a crime procedural called Six Four. But while that novel had some of the trappings of the crime genre, Yokoyama was much more interested in the political machinations of the police, the bureaucracy and the press office. Similarly, his follow- up Seventeen, had a real tragedy at its core, but focussed on the internal politics of a small newspaper. All this is to say that while his new novel The North Light (translated by Louise Heal Kawai), does have a mystery tied into with the work of its architect main character, it is clear that Yokoyama has much more on his mind than architecture.
Architect Minoru Aose has found himself famous for the construction of a particular house, so much so that new clients want him to build versions of it for themselves. Minoru does not feel he can do that, but just to be sure he decides to go back to the house to talk to the clients that he built it for. Only he finds that he cannot get in touch with them. And when he and his boss Okajima go out to the property they find the front door unlocked and that no one has ever lived there. The only furniture in the house is a chair that Okajima believes was created by a famous German architect called Bruno Taut who lived in Japan for a time. Minoru becomes obsessed with discovering why his clients never moved into the house that he built for them. At the same time, Okajima is trying to manoeuvre the small architecture firm to be in the running for the construction of a memorial to a local artist.
While the mystery of the missing clients drives the plot of The North Light it is not Yokayama’s central concern. As with his other books this is just a scaffold on which to hang more interesting reflections. Yokoyama is much more interested in the craft of architecture. There is an exploration of the life of Bruno Taut, including a visit to a famous house that he designed and built. But more than that, he is interested in the relationship between people in the small architecture office – of the way in which the individuals relate to each other and come together to help their boss realise his dream. Around this is a consideration of the ongoing impacts of the Japanese financial crisis and the fraught commercial relationship between design, politics and the media.
The North Light is another fascinating exploration into Japanese culture from Yokoyama. He dives deeply into his subject matter but in a way that allows readers to understand the discipline and the mindset of his characters. And once again those characters represent a cross-section of Japanese society and history so that readers get an insight into not only the characters themselves but the psyche of the nation. And while the resolution of the various plotlines is a little underwhelming, the plot drivers are not really the point, and the conclusion does serve to underline the themes that Yokayama has been exploring.