The disconcerting tale of Kai by Derek Vasconi follows the harbored Satsuki Takamoto, a girl living through a downward spiral of social exclusion, universal envy and ever-deepening depression; in comparison, Seul Bi Rissiello – a resident of Evanston, Illinois – is caring for the mentally ill as she strives for meaning in her life after the brutal loss of her parents in gruesome circumstance. Although unaware of each others existences, both girls live a seemingly poetic tandem of suffering as an unexpected thread ties their tortures together.
This book is quite an eloquent, yet biting read: the slow, creeping, eventually brutal feel of the piece is truly terrifying at times. The build is from mundane to suspicious to undeniably horrifying, and almost made me put the book down to catch my breath at times. It’s got a lot of nuance and subtle pacing that really makes this style of reflective, distinctly Asian-inspired horror fiction great, all the while drawing from an American Gothic to make a really eclectic, varied feel – and all the more disturbing for it. To be blunt, it’s weird as hell, in the best of ways. The beautiful watercolor cover should be a pretty big tip-off for what you’re getting into!
The book does have a very Westernized view of Japan throughout – contrary to the author’s otherwise devout immersive intentions – with a focus on some of the more obvious elements of its culture: Hiroshima, Murakami, “otaku”, spirits, and so on. The lack of that particular spark of familiarity versus a distant, almost academic view is just clear enough to be felt, considering the strong influence of native fiction and its setting. But I’m vastly well-read when it comes to this genre, so I’m being way too picky here. For readers less familiar with Japanese culture, especially literary and horror styles, this is likely to be the complete opposite. The particular habits and idea the book has picked up from those areas runs at a completely different speed to most Western experiences, though the Westernization will no doubt be a positive for those readers getting into it if they have the stomach.
Perhaps more divisive might be the switching narratives, which are confusing at times simply because of the psychological curve to the story that intentionally begins to twist perspective – just at times the complexity can make you need to go back to a page you just read.
Japanese horror fans old and prospective looking for something a bit more familiar to dig into, Kai was made for you. For other readers, take the recommendation with a caveat: this one stands on its own and might take some time to really appreciate. It’s worth the investment, though, as there’s a real gem waiting to crawl out of the book’s thick, sickly shell.