Book Review: What’s Left of Me is Yours by Stephanie Scott
What’s Left of Me Is Yours is a gripping debut set in modern-day Tokyo and inspired by a true crime that charts a young woman’s search for the truth about her mother’s life—and her murder.
Stephanie Scott’s What’s Left of Me Is Yours is an outstanding novel that occupies the interstitial space between crime and literary fiction. Also, the narrative shows that, when done well and applied with care to a well-constructed plot, research can be a writer’s most powerful tool. At once an exploration of failed relationships and a superb look at Japanese culture, this is a debut that will quickly place Scott on the radar.
In Japan there is a dark, morally corrupt industry where individuals who want to force a divorce while retaining the upper hand hire a “wakaresaseya,” which literally means “breaker-upper.” This person’s job is to seduce the spouse of their employer and get evidence of it so they can have the upper hand in divorce proceedings. When Satō decides he wants to leave his wife Rina, he hires Kaitarō, a wakaresaseya, to seduce her, have an affair with her, and give him the evidence so he can use it in the divorce. However, Kaitarō and Rina share a lot of interests and they fall in love. In the ensuing situation, no one is the clear winner and all actions have dire consequences, and the biggest victim, the only innocent one, is Sumiko, Rina’s daughter. When a murder changes the lives of everyone involved in the case, Sumiko is still a young girl. Years later, she decides to find out what happened to her parents, and what she unveils is a shocking, heartbreaking story of deceit, impossible relationships, backstabbing, and familial drama.
What’s Left of Me Is Yours is told from alternating points of view that switch between characters and also between past and present. This allows readers to get a look at what happened between Rina and Kaitarō while Sumiko learns about her mother’s life and death and the roles her father and grandfather played in all of it. This alternating technique isn’t new, but Scott does it very well and ensures that revelations and flashbacks happen almost simultaneously, which means there are many unknowns all the way until the end of the story. Furthermore, Scott uses a plethora of elements and papers/records to reveal things at specific times in ways that enrich the novel. In fact, one of the most important elements here is the juxtaposition between what forensics and court documents show and the first-person point of view we get from Kaitarō.
While this is a novel that easily fits under the crime fiction umbrella, there are elements of noir, whodunits, and even romance at play here. Scott brings them together effectively and uses them to give the novel a good rhythm; it slows down to explore the initial stages of a relationship, talk about love, and show the crumbling marriage that leads to it all, but then it accelerates and shows how anger, guilt, and desire can combine into something fast and explosive.
Scott gets a lot right, but there are two elements that make this novel a must-read. The first one is the way noir inhabits the heart of the story, even when things are going well or nothing awful is happening:
In the corridor I leaned my head against the cold tinted glass of the window. Night had fallen over the city and the ward of Shinagawa lay sprawled out before me. I could see my reflection sharply delineated by the fluorescent lights and beyond it the expanse of Tokyo prickling in the darkness. I looked at my face in the glass, a young woman with large dark eyes and high cheekbones. Around my neck was a string of pearls that had belonged to my mother. Under the glare of the lights the opalescent orbs gleamed as I touched them.
When writing the Other, when exploring other cultures and developing characters from other countries who speak different languages, research has to be an author’s main priority, and Scott shows that she is a master at that. From familial drama to courtroom antics, many aspects of Japanese culture are not only shown but also explained to readers:
There is only one basic homicide statute in Japan: Article 199 of the Penal Code. It states that “a person who kills another shall be punished.” So it was on that day. What kind of murder had been committed, the motivation behind the killing, any remorse felt by the defendant, an appropriate punishment—all of this was decided by a panel of three, alone in their judicial chambers.
What’s Left of Me Is Yours is a superb debut. Heartfelt and heartbreaking, this is a story that mixes mystery, grief, guilt, and murder into a narrative about love in a unique culture where sometimes silence is seen as the way to go when all it does is allow bad things to fester. Scott’s confident, elegant prose and outstanding research skills will surely make her a household name in no time. Start reading her now.