The Earthquake Bird is the debut novel by Susanna Jones. The stage is set right in the first page where we find Lucy Fly being questioned in a Tokyo police station about the murder of a friend Lily Bridges. Lucy, who is fluent in Japanese, is a translator and very good at her job. She has very little contact with other expatriates. Lucy lives in a bubble of her own allowing only a select few to breach that wall, Teiji being one of them. He is a brilliant photographer who works in his uncle’s noodle shop. Lucy is enthralled by Teiji whom she finds to be a kindred soul, and this relationship acts as the catalyst that sets off the main events in the book. Lily Bridges is also from Yorkshire but unlike Lucy she is completely at sea in a foreign country. She is not able to settle down in any way and her inability to function well compels Lucy to step in and help her, albeit hesitantly.
The Earthquake Bird cannot be classified as a thriller even though the story starts with a murder. The murder that’s committed is merely a thread to hang the story on. The author has ventured into the mind of young Lucy Fly, an expatriate in Japan. It’s the story of a lonely yet strong girl who is trying to make some sense of the highly skewed deck of cards life has dealt her.
Lucy has always been an outsider, even in her own home. Being the youngest and sole female in a completely male-dominated household in East Yorkshire, and a highly intelligent person to boot, Lucy had been the victim of vicious bullying by her siblings. Being away in University had helped her escape the callousness, but it’s only in Japan that she actually feels comfortable. The label of an expatriate seems to give her the freedom to revel in her separateness. The natural reticence of the Japanese is exactly what Lucy requires to live the solitary life she enjoys.
Lucy leads a simple life and is content to be an observer of the world around her. The author is able to show us the vulnerability that hides within Lucy. She sees only imperfections within herself but we get a glimpse of the strength and passion hidden beneath. Unknowingly, Lucy is constantly searching for acceptance, for someone to call her own. She finds reflections of herself in Teiji who is also a loner.
Susanna Jones won the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys prize for this debut novel as well as the Betty Trask Award. The author’s style is not elaborate or flowery, but it is haunting in its conciseness. Her words are spare but they manage to convey an intensity that is moving. The fact that the narrative moves between a first person and a third person perspective raises doubts in the reader’s mind regarding Lucy’s mental stability. But I think that it’s Lucy’s attempt to distance herself from the pain she had to endure. It’s her defense mechanism to deal with the neglect and cruelty that was meted out to her as a child and even later. The focus is not on the crime which was committed but it’s an attempt to make sense of what went wrong in Lucy’s carefully controlled life just at the time when she was letting down her guard and settling down. There’s a slight ambiguity to the conclusion, which might prove disappointing to some readers, but I liked the possibility hidden there.
I leave you with Susanna’s words on Tokyo – “Tokyo was more than Lucy could have hoped for. Too big ever to be found there, too noisy to have to listen to anything, too expensive to worry about saving any money. And under the chaos, a cool and quietly beating heart. An organ that pumped blood through stooping centenarians, three-year-old Nintendo whizz kids, office workers with no time for meals or sleep, and university students with all the time in the world.”