Confessions is a psychological thriller/murder novel that keeps a fast pace and tight organization throughout. Told from the points of view of multiple narrators, the story focuses on the murder of a middle school teacher’s 4-year-old daughter and the fallout from that murder. Parent-child relationships, teacher-student relationships and the allure of revenge are the themes that run throughout.
Chapter one is narrated by middle school teacher Moriguchi. It is the last day of the term, and she announces to her class that it is also her last day teaching. When asked if she is leaving due to the death of her daughter, she indicates that she is, and goes on to tell her students a little about her background. She also drops the bombshell that she knows that two students in the class actually murdered her 4-year-old daughter Manami. Moriguchi’s final lecture to her students is chilling in its calmness and rationality. Not only does she lay out the evidence for her theory, but she also drops heavy hints as to who the culprits are and the nature of the revenge she has already taken upon them. What follows is a gripping psychological thriller as the reader sees how her revenge plot unfolds. Subsequent chapters are narrated by one of Moriguchi’s students, who gives her perspective on what happens to the class, the perpetrators and the new teacher over the course of the next months; the diary of the mother of one of the perpetrators, who thinks she understands her terribly sensitive son and his need for respite and protection; the point of view of the other perpetrator, whose motivations are surprising, misguided and tragic; and finally back to Moriguchi for the big surprise.
Minato is able to use Japanese cultural and legal norms to great advantage in the telling of her story. Running throughout the novel is the idea that the press is obsessed with outrageous crimes committed by minors, to the point that children who commit such crimes almost become celebrities and rarely face significant punishment under the juvenile justice system. Blame is placed on parents or other adults for the shortcomings of their children. Parent-child relationships in this book seems to go to extremes. Some parents are absent from their children’s lives, others are “hover parents” who can be smothering and yet not see what is happening under their noses. Moriguchi is considered odd for raising her daughter as a single parent, and some of her students’ parents question her ability to be a truly committed parent or teacher. Expectations of teachers play into the story as well. If a student is troubled, teachers are expected to become involved, no matter what time of day or night. Moriguchi recognizes that she is not as warm and friendly as some other teachers; she does not try to be their “buddy,” but rather treats students with a professional courtesy. Reference is made throughout the story to a particular teacher known throughout the country for being a “saint.” He was a bad boy when young, sowed his wild oats, then turned his life around and became a teacher so as to help guide students along the right path. Moriguchi’s substitute models himself after this saintly teacher with disastrous results.
In the end, the reader will question the psychological health and motivations of each character. Just as you think you understand, Minato throws a little curve ball, and the reader is off balance again. Each of the principal characters elicits sympathy and yet also displays a deep flaw in character or psyche that leads to deeply disturbing behavior. Moriguchi is the most intriguing of all. We might understand her desire for revenge after the death of her child, but her means for exacting it and the tenacity with which she pursues it are chilling. This was a fun read. You won’t want to put it down, and you might not look at middle school the same way again.