People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo--and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry
People Who Eat Darkness written by Richard Lloyd Parry left me critically polarized. Whilst this nonfiction book is utterly compelling, I grappled with whether the text was ethical and wondering why it was written.
Parry’s writing is undeniably strong, strong like Dan Brown’s writing is strong. This is not a comparison intended to defame Parry, but even with the knowledge that I know it might be appear intended like that, I am going to go ahead with it. I couldn’t help but reminisce about the time when everyone was reading The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. They were quite the pieces of fiction, and they were utterly ridiculous. As enthralled with the books as I was, I was frustrated that I was still turning pages. With People Who Eat Darkness, I feel similarly, although in this case the story was real. It tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a young British woman who moved to Roppongi, Japan to work as a hostess in order to clear her debts, but is consequently dismembered by Joji Obara. The story is divided into six parts, the first three parts read so much like a novel reads it borderlines on the inappropriate.
It is unethical opening up someone's diary when they are alive, let alone dead, and then, furthermore, publishing excerpts of it. From these excerpts we discover Lucie experienced debt, self consciousness, and things we are all familiar with and can identify with. Parry writes, "At first glance [at her diary], there was nothing obvious to distinguish Lucie Blackman from millions of other like her..." The whole book from here on is Parry convincing us that Lucie was distinguishable. But the fact of the matter is Lucie was raped and dismembered; this is tragic no matter how ordinary and indistinguishable the victim may be. I don’t quite understand the venture into convincing us that she’s not as boring as we might think.
Parry's characterization of Lucie as being doomed to die is frustrating. After Lucie’s parents divorce, Parry describes how her mother Jane had to move to "a small house, grim brick cube in the less genteel quarters of Sevenoaks," only to find that the previous owner had disappeared and was later found buried somewhere in Bromley. Jane is then quoted as saying, “Lucie hated the house.” Parry writes as if her mother should have known her fate by her hatred of this new home, that it should have served as a warning. There’s no way that this is what Parry could be saying, because it’s ridiculous. However that’s all I can read from this, Lucie’s opinion of this house is a rather unnecessary piece of information being used to tell her story as if it were fiction and to keep us turning pages.
That all said, it is an undeniably compelling read. As much as I don't agree with digging into someone's diary, it doesn't mean it's not something we all want to do. Parry demonstrates through his writing style his understanding of how pathetic we can be, an opportunity to read a murdered woman’s diary is regretfully a strong selling point and like Angel and Demons, is a fraught pleasure.
The ethics of violating someone's privacy with the justification being this horrendous crime is an important issue to be raised. However, the fact of the matter is she wrote a diary and now some guy is prying through it and making it public. But it's cool, he's a journalist that’s spent a great deal of time in Japan. He knows what he’s doing.
The fact that Parry's spent all this time in Tokyo as the Tokyo bureau chief for the Times of London, I guess, qualifies him to write the book to a specific readership, in this case I am referring to Britain where the book was first released and where both Parry and Lucie are from. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a very rash assumption (because I’m British I think I can), and say Britain is made up of many people who have never been to Japan or would never want to go, and might very well believe the people of Japan “eat darkness.” Having grown up in London as a second generation West Indian I know of Britain’s xenophobic tendencies both socially and politically, which, to some extent is conveyed in Parry’s portrayal of Lucie’s family. Lucie’s mother’s fear of her going to Japan is suspiciously over the top and shows the fears that many British people have of other cultures, despite it being played as a psychic flash.
As annoying as his qualifications are as a white male writing about Asia, in Parry’s defense he does not fully rely on the implied xenophobia of the readership. Relative to the whole text, Lucie’s diary excerpts are not exhausted. By part four “Obara,” Parry reveals his impressive knowledge of the history between Korea and Japan and that Joji Obara was not Japanese but of Korean descent. To someone who has grown up in a Western school system, we were never taught to distinguish between different Asian countries, let alone cultures and identities. But Parry pushes you to understand this difference: the social significance of a Korean living in Japan is a difficult experience, like that of a West Indian in Britain.
Despite Obara’s nauseating criminal acts, I do appreciate Parry’s attempt to place Obara in a historical context which ultimately humanizes him. I honestly expected a racist read, and a depiction of Japan and its people and especially of someone as detestable as Joji Obara. But Parry is commendably careful with how he talks about Japan and Obara. The book is biased towards Lucie, by virtue of the fact that she is the victim and dead. Parry does not revel in depicting her family as being helpless victims, but humanizes them too. There’s a interesting paragraph about how Lucie’s father Tim was starting to be conceived as being insensitive to his daughter's disappearance because of the curious amount of time he spent out late in Japan’s night scene.
That brings me to Parry’s vivid depictions of a deeply disturbing underbelly of Japan: the uncovering of men's disturbing sexual desires. Fears, particularly as a female reader, are forced to the surface. The chapter entitled “S&M” is so utterly creepy it's hard to believe these men are real, again adding to the fictitious feel of the book. In this chapter Parry describes one of the possible leads Lucie’s father Tim discovered whilst looking for his daughter. I was so creeped out by this chapter that I had to play Bob’s Burgers in the background to offset the fear the book was creating. Parry is of course describing the most severe of situations where women are not, at the very least, giving “consent,” which is hairy in itself. His descriptions of this dark S&M underbelly reminded me of Dennis Cooper’s descriptions of S&M in his novel Frisk in their extremity.
The publication of People Who Eat Darkness flags up the value of white female bodies. In Dave Chappelle’s stand up “For What It’s Worth” he talks about the double standard of missing white bodies and how white bodies receive a great deal more press than those of color, saying when black people go missing no one cares. This book is a testament to his point. First there was worldwide press attention. Second there's this book. Parry does however discuss the difficulties that Lucie’s friends and family encountered initially in bringing attention to her case in Japan, but it becomes evident that there’s not that much difficulty generating sympathy from the British public when it comes to a white (blonde) Brit getting lost in that hazy Asian area.
I’m confused by the existence of People Who Eat Darkness as a publication, but the story is a regrettable vehicle for Parry to impart his knowledge of Japan and in light of how little we are taught in Western society, this is nothing less than impressive. The way he teaches us is neither arrogant or condescending -- in fact I for once really enjoyed a historical lecture. But there is something unsettling about Lucie’s tragic end being used to tell a bigger story about Japan. I can’t help but think there are other ways he could showcase his knowledge. But would he then have his readers?
Like Dan Brown, Parry’s pretty much written the screenplay for a blockbuster movie. And why wouldn't it happen? The book contains all the necessary components: sex, drugs, deceit, love and death. But please: don’t put Lucie Blackman on a billboard, I really don’t want to be right about this.
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
Farrar, Straus and Giroux