“What’s Left of Me Is Yours” by Stephanie Scott

Detail of the US edition cover Detail of the US edition cover

Based on a true story, this debut legal thriller is a simmering tale of passion and murder set in the murky world of the wakaresaseya: agents hired to break up marriages. 

Starting in early 1990s Tokyo, one such agent, Kaitaro Nakamura, is engaged by salaryman Osamu Sato to seduce his wife, Rina. Sato aims to use evidence of their affair as grounds for a divorce. Rina herself would not be averse to a separation. Osamu is a pig, which she discovered early in their marriage. However, having sacrificed her burgeoning career as a photographer to raise their daughter, Sumiko, and be the perfect wife, her options are limited. Aware of her duties and terrified she would lose custody of Sumiko completely, Rina endures Osamu’s late nights and disinterest without complaint.

For a professional seducer like Kaitaro, Rina is an easy target. To him, the assignment is just another task to be completed before he can return to his genuine interest—photography. Much to his surprise, he and Rina bond over their shared artistic goals and fall in love. As their relationship deepens, mistakes are made which lead ultimately to Rina’s death—seemingly at Kaitaro’s hands. Rina’s father, Yoshi, and her young daughter, Sumiko, are left to deal with the consequences.

 

https://images-na.ssl-What’s Left of Me Is Yours, Stephanie Scott, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, April 2020; Doubleday, June 2020)
What’s Left of Me Is Yours, Stephanie Scott, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, April 2020; Doubleday, June 2020)

The novel’s storyline is not linear and actually begins in the present day. Although the reader sees the adult Sumiko reading an old newspaper report of Kaitaro’s trial in the prologue, Sumiko herself only discovers her mother was murdered a few chapters later. As a child, she was told that her mother died in a car crash. The narrative then alternates between Sumiko’s investigation (in the first person) and the unfolding of the Rina-Kaitaro story related in the third person.

The seemingly complicated structure works: events in the past are clearly differentiated and Sumiko’s reactions to them are heightened by the first-person viewpoint. It also allows Stephanie Scott—a Singaporean and British writer who was born and raised in South East Asia—to mix a tender, literary love story with a meticulously researched police procedural: Sumiko, like her grandfather Yoshi, is a lawyer. The result is seamless, although perhaps not as twisty as average detective fiction. But the more literary parts of the story more than compensate. Scott has a talent for descriptive writing and the ability to convey large ideas in a brief sentence as when she communicates the psychology of seduction in one of Kaitaro’s almost throwaway comments about his work:

 

I like you because you like me and that’s how it’s done. You turn yourself into a mirror for each person. You pretend interest in their problems, radiate approval, and you reflect back to them the things they want to see.

 

There is plenty to learn from this book about Japanese society, legal process, photography and even geography. Scott is also keen to show how events of the past can have long-lasting effects on the present. The strongest theme to emerge however is that of the perils of living your life as others wish. Rina marries Osamu to please her parents with tragic results. Kaitaro rebels against his father’s demand that he stays in Hokkaido and becomes a fisherman. Yet, through lack of self-belief, he cannot make the final leap to fulfillment.

It is left to Sumiko to break this cycle. At the end of her inquiry, she realizes that her destiny is not joining her grandfather’s legal firm, as he desires, but elsewhere, or as she says: “the question of how to live was up to me.”

 

In all, What’s Left of Me Is Yours is the story of Sumiko’s quest for her own identity rather than that of her mother’s murderer. Scott leaves us with an image of Kaitaro being released from jail at the same time as Sumiko exits an underground station. Both characters are looking to embrace the future by throwing off the chains of the past. It’s a strong message of hope and self-realization from an unusually intelligent whodunnit.


Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.