THE MEMORY EATERS
By Janice Tay
Straits Times Press/Paperback/ 367 pages/ $19.80/Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars
Few Singapore writers will be able to paint a picture of feudal Japan as vividly as Janice Tay, who has been living in the country's ancient capital of Kyoto for more than 10 years.
In 2006, the former Straits Times journalist moved to Kyoto to immerse herself in the language and the city's rich heritage.
These strong influences are evident in The Memory Eaters, her debut, full-length fictional effort set in feudal Japan that has already cracked the local bestsellers list.
The atmospheric novel will transport readers to historic cities such as Kyoto and Kurashiki, where traditional townhouses have been preserved to this day.
Kyoto, the former political capital with its innumerous shrines and temples, is the home of traditions such as the elaborate cha-no-yu tea ceremony and exquisite Noh theatre. The canal system of Kurashiki, meanwhile, made it an invaluable trade hub and merchant centre to the shogunate.
Tay excels as a descriptive writer - "This morning too, he found another cicada on the walkway, its veined wings still, its body heavy with death" - and her way with words, as seen in her slice-of-life compendium of essays Kyoto Unhurried (2016), is evident here.
At the heart of The Memory Eaters - set in an age of samurais and ronins as well as warlords and overlords - is a mythical ageless creature known as the kuyin.
The spirit beast camouflages its true self by assuming human form and survives by feeding on human memories. The victims, however, will lose what the kuyin eats.
A kuyin given the name Sudare, that has roamed Japan for 800 years, is, however, conscience-stricken. The connoisseur of calligraphy and poetry has, over the centuries, ripped herself from the memories of those around her to protect her identity from her friends, despite having forged close friendships and connections.
Tiring of life, she decides to starve herself to death and hole herself up on an island devoid of humans, when a man - fleeing a band of samurai - collapses before her.
He whets her voracious appetite and she uncontrollably bites into the forbidden fruit - but is immediately beset by guilt. She decides to help the man, whom she calls Amado, find out who he is and why he is being hunted down.
The off-kilter verbal sparring between Sudare and Amado breaks the rather solemn tone of the novel and their caustic humour lends itself to a delicate trust that builds up to the rather inevitable forbidden romance.
The hunt for Amado's past takes the duo into the heart of the city, which is mired in political strife as the warlord Mokaga plots a rebellion to overthrow the emperor.
The Memory Eaters is a somewhat slow burn of a novel - some questions that I pre-empted were answered only as many as 100 pages later - but readers with the patience will be greatly rewarded.
For it is an elegiac tale that, at its heart, ruminates on the implications of experience and memory - the joy, pain and everything in between - and what it means to forget.
If you like this, read: Kyoto Unhurried by Janice Tay (Straits Times Press, 2016, $25.90, Books Kinokuniya). Part journal and part travel guide, Tay's fitting homage to her adopted home also gives intriguing insights into Japanese society.