Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Master Key by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

Source: Goodreads
The Master Key
Masako Togawa
Translated by Simon Grove (from Japanese)
Originally 1962, I read 1986
160 pages, thiller, mystery

In postwar Japan, a never-before-seen engineering feat will move a ladies' dormitory to make way for a new road - so smoothly, the head of the project assures the elderly inhabitants, that they won't even spill a drop of water from a glass.

As the women, retired spinsters and widows who have shared the same living spaces for decades, stare at the full glasses poised on their tables, a tangle of mysteries and secrets will be revealed. Seven years ago there was a secret burial underneath the building, of a suitcase that was just child-sized.

But that is not the only secret that has haunted the residents of the dormitory in recent months. The master key, the only key that will open every door in the building, has gone missing. And someone seems to be discovering secrets that have been hidden for a long time....

Buy from Amazon: 

The Master Key (King Penguin)

Secrets of the Elderly

The women in this book live relatively lonely, solitary lives. They do not have families and were never married or are widowed. Several of the characters are crippled with their knowledge of compromising secrets.  The violinist is the best example of this; she has a secret that has eaten away at her conscience for years, and even caused a physical disability. Because these women are old, they may have been burdened by these same secrets for thirty or forty years. The secret becomes one of their motivations, one of the main ways they relate to the world. Masako Togawa's haunting depiction brilliantly portrays the psychological effects of the tormented.

Another of the women has essentially become a mouse, only emerging from her junk-filled room at night to steal food for herself. By describing this woman's point of view, the author illustrates the psychological situation of an abandoned, elderly individual. Importantly, Masako Togawa points out the fact that this woman wasn't always like this; as she grew older and was abandoned, became very poor and withdrew from others, she changed into what we see here. Without preaching about it, the author makes a case for better treatment of the elderly.  

The retired teacher is an alternative example of the aging woman. Like the others, she finds herself alone and without much to do when she retires. Having worked her whole life, she chafes at the thought of not doing anything for her remaining years. To keep herself occupied, she writes letters to her old students, one per day. While she realizes that this is a bit ridiculous, she needs something to do to keep herself from going crazy. 

Masako Togawa's book is filled with characters like these, making you aware of the all-too-real plight of the lonely elderly. 


As a mystery novel, this book was a bit disappointing. There was a red herring that I did not notice, and the ending seemed like too much of a stretch to be realistic. 

However, the rest of the novel was a beautiful investigation of female aging that more than made up for the problems with the plot. I highly recommend this book.

Where I found it: Caveat Emptor, Bloomington, IN, USA

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