Review copy provided by the publisher through Netgalley.
When they decided to marry, the siblings and gods Izanami and Izanaki built a huge pillar and then circled it in opposite directions. Izanami, the woman, spoke first, and because of this their first two children were monsters. They circled the pillar again and this time Izanagi spoke first, and their next children were the eight islands of Japan. Izanami ultimately died of burns from giving birth to Kago-Tsuki, Fire. The grief-stricken Izanagi sought her in the land of the dead, but he was too late: Izanami had already the food of the underworld. Against Izanami's pleas, Izanagi lit a fire and saw that his dead wife was now a rotting corpse. Izanagi fled the underworld in horror, blocking the entrance to the underworld with a huge boulder. Izanami vowed to take a thousand lives a day in revenge, and Izanagi replied that he would then create fifteen hundred to make up for it.
After this, Izanagi gave birth to Ameratsu (the sun goddess) from his left eye, Tsukuyomi (the moon god) from his right eye, and Susano-o (the storm god) from his nose.
Natsuo Kirino's retelling, the latest book in the Canongate Myths series, preserves the gendered cruelty of the original story: women continue to pay prices men do not. Izanami dies in childbirth; for Izanagi, childbirth is painless. The unequal dualities of Izanagi and Izanami, male and female, life and death, sacred and profane, repeat in the story of two sisters, hereditary priestesses on a remote island. The elder, Kamikuu, is trained to be priestess of the day, the side of the island where the villagers live; Namima is the impure one, the priestess of the night, meant to watch over the bodies of the dead.
Namima narrates the book from the underworld. Death is the price she pays for violating ritual laws at the behest of her lover, who prospers after her death; their daughter is condemned to Namima's own role. Namima manages to free her daughter of this fate, posthumously; it is her only victory. Satisfied with this prize, she accepts her fate:
And I, who was once the priestess of the darkness, feel that serving here at Izanami’s side I am able to accomplish what I was unable to finish on earth. For, as I said earlier, Izanami is without doubt a woman among women. The trials that she has borne are the trials all women must face.
This is a bleak book, where the only hope for women is what they can do for each other, and even that seldom serves them. It is not any bleaker than Kirino's mystery novels, which also feature doubles, opposites, rivalries between sisters or friends, and women who are associated with the hidden, the unacknowledged, the unwanted aspects of the body. Prostitutes, factory laborers, caretakers for the elderly: Kirino's characters are defined by society as impure; they are sin eaters and scapegoats. The Goddess Chronicle
lacks the depth and complexity of those mysteries, possibly because it has a single narrator, whereas the mysteries have four viewpoint characters at minimum. Their stories contradict and support each other. Namima is unusually reliable for a Kirino narrator, and it can't be attributed to her afterlife; in this underworld, the dead see no more clearly than the living do. Men abandon their responsibilities with their memories; women, even goddesses, simply endure.