『往復書簡』(おうふくしょかん) is a collection of four epistolary short stories by Kanae Minato (湊かなえ) published by 幻冬舎文庫 (げんとうしゃぶんこ).
A journey to the past
With the exception of the fourth story, which is very short and a little different than the others, the three main short stories all follow a similar pattern: several people who share a common past or have a connection with it will start exchanging letters. In each story, there is a particular event that lies in the past, altered by the years, the incomplete memories and the things unsaid. The protagonists will unveil this past mystery and search for the truth.
I found this format very original and interesting. The stories show how a same event can be experienced and remembered completely differently by the person who where involved at the time. You cannot help but reflect about your own past. It is a little scary to think that your friends might have a completely different recollection or experience of some shared events.
In the end, what really happened matters less than the way people experienced it, because their interpretation of the past makes them what they are now, it forges their personality and can influence their choice. I find that Kanae MINATO depicts this perfectly.
Epistolary genre to dig the past?
I like epistolary novels, but I couldn’t help wondering if it is the best genre to dig into the past.
I am not an expert, but I feel that the epistolary genre is perfect when two persons who used to know each other are separated and talk about their own present life in their letters. In the opposite direction, two persons who don’t know each other can start a correspondence and each one talks about his or her own past.
The problem when people talk about a shared past through letters is that they will have to say things like “At that moment I said… then you replied… then I did… and you remarked that…” for the sake of the reader. I found this a little unnatural. Also, in the second story, one of the correspondent transcribes whole interviews in his letters. He would say “I will transcribe my interview with … :” and then the story reads like a novel, not like a letter.
Another thing that bothered me a little is that the reason why the protagonists start writing letters is a little far-fetched. It is not something people would do in real life, I think.
All in all, I loved the stories, but I am not convinced by the choice of the epistolary genre.
In spite of these negative points, I enjoyed reading the book because I love mysteries and I love when the past is not what we thought it was. But the pattern of each story is a little repetitive and while I loved the first story, liked the second one, I felt a little bored when I read the third one and couldn’t feel involved in the story. This is why I would recommend to read each story at different time, instead of all in a row.