When I began reading I had expected a violent revenge story, but what I got was much darker and more insidious. Penance explores grief, guilt, the different ways that people deal with tragedy, and the way that trauma can alter the trajectory of a person’s life.
The setting is innocent enough, a rural town where everyone knows each other. There is a lot of commentary on rural versus city life and the way that people from both walks of life view each other. The town is simple, ideal even, safe enough where residents felt comfortable leaving their doors unlocked and let their children play outside unattended. It reminded me of my own childhood and it really hit home how different life was back then compared to the present day. The horrible events that happen throughout each of the stories to me were very realistic scenarios, making them that much more unnerving.
“Emily was murdered all because of me.”
Each of the chapters tell the stories of four girls, now young women, that were there the day Emily was taken, the way that they experienced the crime, and their lives afterward. The stories are told in the first person which I thought was a good choice, I felt fully immersed in the lives of these women and understood them emotionally. The scars left behind by the tragedy are clear, shaping and distorting each of the girls’ personalities as they are ripped away from childhood innocence and thrust into the painful world of adults. Each of the girls finds themselves haunted by the past, dissecting the event, questioning their own culpability in the death of their friend, worrying over what they did and what they could’ve done, and dreading how close they were to a horrible fate themselves. Emily wasn’t the only victim that day.
To fully understand the tone of the narrative, it’s important to look at the title. Penance, to repent for one’s sins. The Japanese title is Shokuzai, which means atonement. It is only after repenting and learning from past mistakes that one can find absolution. Penance is about the messy path from suffering and agony to forgiveness; the story and central message is both heartbreaking and beautiful.
A fair warning, some of the content is distressing and extremely difficult to handle. There were several times where, when I knew what was coming in the next scenes, I honestly had to put the book down to calm my nerves and wipe away tears before I could continue. I absolutely loved this book and cautiously recommend it for those that enjoy heart wrenching suspense stories.
When a group of young girls are approached by a stranger, they cannot know that the encounter will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Hours later, Emily is dead. The surviving girls alone can identify the killer. But not one of them remembers his face…
Driven mad by grief, the victim’s mother demands the girls find the murderer or else atone for their crimes. If they do neither, she will have her revenge. She will make them pay…