The award-winning 1950 Akira Kurosawa film classic “Rashomon,” based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, used different and contradictory accounts of a samurai’s death to explore humanity’s self-serving behavior. Kanae Minato’s first novel, “Confessions,” adopts a somewhat similar approach, with its six chapters providing first-person accounts of a crime in the words of different characters.

Confessions, by Kanae Minato, Translated by Stephen Snyder.
Mulholland Books, Fiction.

The story’s central figure is Yuko Moriguchi, a middle-school teacher and single mother. The father of her child refused to marry her when he learned he was HIV positive.

Two “bad seeds” — boys from Moriguchi’s homeroom class — first knock unconscious and then drown her 4-year-old daughter. Initially they manage to elude suspicion because the child’s death by drowning appeared accidental. When Moriguchi determines the two were responsible, she extracts vengeance by using HIV-tainted blood from her former lover to infect the two boys. One of the two, Naoki Shitamura, gradually descends into insanity.

Moriguchi resigns, and her replacement at school — a jocular rookie teacher named Terada — appears oblivious to the toxic atmosphere left in Moriguchi’s wake, and unable to shake the students out of their angst.

The final chapter contains a string of stunning reversals, with a master manipulator emerging as the deus ex machina who devised not one but several bloodcurdling ways to make the punishment fit the crime.

Credit for the book’s defining passage goes to Naoki’s elder sister, who observes, “Murders … can still stir up interest when they offer a look inside the workings of a dysfunctional family — let you see how badly things can go wrong.”

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