Although published by Mysterious Press, The Earthquake Bird is not really a mystery in the sense we tend to think of mysteries as a genre. There is a crime, true, but its investigation is such a small part of the overall book that it is almost nonexistent. What this book really is, is a kind of fictional personal memoir of a rather lonely, odd young woman named Lucy Fly. Those readers looking for a true whodunit or a cops or private eye suspense story will not find it here.
Still, The Earthquake Bird is an interesting book. What we have here is in fact a relationship tale built around the classic love triangle. There is Lucy, who one day meets Teiji, a Japanese photographer (who earns his living working in a noodle restaurant), and there is Lilly, who has just moved to Japan and who Lucy, almost against her will, befriends. Lilly, nearly inevitably, ends up sleeping with Teiji.
The novel begins with Lucy's arrest for the murder of her friend, Lilly. There are eyewitness' accounts that Lucy and Lilly were arguing the last day of Lilly's life. Lucy is taken to the police station to be interviewed and, while in the police station for the interview, Lucy recalls her past. These recollections form the bulk of the novel. The reader knows that she is in for a long ride on the memory train when Chapter Three begins with the line: "I began with my birth."
Lucy was born a girl, which was her bad luck as her parents wanted all boys. They got seven sons and then Lucy, "a scrawny pink girl with no neck and beady black crow's eyes". Never loved in her own family Lucy ends up leaving home and living in Tokyo working as a translator of technical books and papers. When she meets Teiji (picks him up, really) she goes immediately to bed with him and subsequently becomes obsessed with him. She ascribes to Teiji the nature of the suffering artist -- a photographer -- in her mind, while he's really just a restaurant worker who, after work, wanders the city with a camera taking snapshots, photos he's never sold and apparently has no desire to sell. What their relationship is, even Lucy has a rough time putting into words. After Lilly asks her if she has a boyfriend, Lucy thinks to herself:
"I couldn't demean Teiji by referring to him with such a common and banal term. On the other hand, I supposed he was my boyfriend. We didn't exactly date but I couldn't say he wasn't my boyfriend. Lover perhaps? But what was I to him? I didn't know and for some reason I didn't feel comfortable thinking about it."
Perhaps because all she really is to Teiji is a no-cost prostitute. All she and Teiji really do is get together to sleep with each other. Anything more than that is a creation in Lucy's own mind.
We have the sense of reading Lucy's personal diary throughout; her thoughts could easily be entries in a diary. Lucy also slips from first-person to third-person point-of-view in her thoughts. For example, when going around with Lilly to look at apartments, she thinks: "I enjoyed looking. Lucy cannot visit a home, occupied or not, without imagining herself into it." The psychological significance of this habit, if any, is not explained.
Here is a woman without a true home, who has never really felt she had a home (disliked as she was by her parents and brothers) and who subconsciously desires one, although this is never directly said. It's a character study which is quite well done. Lucy's life story is not without interest and Susanna Jones is a fine writer with a good eye for detail and a subtle touch, but the book is being marketed as a mystery and, reading it, I felt a little like a person who'd been conned by a circus barker, telling me that I would get one thing if I put my money down, and instead winding up with something completely different once inside the tent. Perhaps if this book was being offered primarily as a character study, a pure look into the mind of a lonely woman, I'd be inclined to rate it higher, but it's not. It's being offered to the public as a mystery and, as such, one has to wonder just where the mystery is. For those readers looking for a solid mystery novel to curl up with, The Earthquake Bird might not quite be the book you want.
For readers who like such character studies, The Earthquake Bird rates higher. As long as you know what to expect when you purchase it, it is a very good read and will hold your interest to the last page. I found myself caring about poor Lucy and wanting to find out how she fares at the somewhat surprising end of the book.