Book Review: The Girl from the Well, Rin Chupeco (2014)

June 12th, 2015 12:11 pm by Kelly Garbato

“An onryuu with a conscience, kami help us.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through NetGalley.)

I have always striven for detachment, a disinterest in the living. Their preoccupation with each breath of air, the brevity of their lifetimes, and their numerous flaws do not inspire sympathy in me. I can plumb their minds and wander the places they frequent, but they hold little significance.

I do not care to remember names. I do not care to recognize faces.

But this one is called Tarquin Holloway.

He has a cousin named Callie Starr.

His eyes are very bright blue.

He is lonely.

It is not in my nature to be interested in the living.

But there are many things, I have found, that defy nature.

“An onryuu with a conscience, kami help us.”

Should a person experience a brutal and unwarranted death at the hands of another, she does do not go gentle into that good night. Rather than continue on to the afterlife – whatever that may entail; it’s not for the narrator to say – she remains in a sort of purgatory, her spirit tethered to her murderer. Only when her death is avenged, and her killer brought to justice, is her soul free to move on. If she still wants to, that is.

Okiku is a yuurei – a spirit that cannot rest. Three hundred years ago, the 16-year-old girl was tortured and murdered, her body tossed down a well like so much trash, at the hands of a retainer – and with her beloved Lord’s permission. In the centuries since, Okiku has roamed the world, hunting down those who prey on children: murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. Fueled by vengeance, Okiku is an especially powerful yuurei: an onryuu, able to harm the living.

Okiku kills killers, transforming their bodies into water-bloated corpses resembling her own; and, when her work is done, she shows the spirits of the murderer’s victims the way home. Though she’s mostly numb to human emotions, these little balls of pure, spiritual energy (like fireflies) suffuse her with a brief feeling of warmth before departing this realm.

Never before has it crossed her mind to intervene before a crime has transpired; Okiku avenges deaths, she doesn’t prevent them. Until she spots the boy with deep blue eyes, the shock of black hair, and the strange tattoos covering his body. Tattoos that shimmer and shift in the periphery of one’s vision. Tattoos he tries so hard to cover up. The boy being hunted by a predator – and haunted by a woman dressed in black.

When Okiku breaks her cardinal rule against interfering in the lives of the living, she saves Tarquin Holloway – Tark for short – not once, but twice (ditto: his cousin Callie), and embarks on a journey that will carry her from Maine back to her homeland of Japan. As she tries to protect Tark and his allies from the malevolent spirit locked within his body – by his own mother, no less – Okiku finds the humanity she thought she’d lost all those years ago.

There’s so much to love about Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well. First and foremost, it’s a deliciously creepy horror story, with lots of gore and scares and righteous revenge. Okiku is the sort of anti-hero that you can’t help but root for; she’s rather like the teenage, female Dexter of the spirit world, wreaking vengeance on the big bads (but human) who are all but begging for it.

Chupeco’s writing is both artful and visual; she paints a portrait, and then imbues it with life. As I read, I couldn’t help but picture how each scene might play out on the big screen. Note to Hollywood: someone needs to buy the rights to The Girl from the Well like yesterday (assuming it isn’t already in development).

If the story feels a bit like The Ring: good! Both stories are based on the same Japanese ghost story, that of Okiku and the Nine Plates. Many of the images involving Okiku – choppy, sudden movements; ghosts that protrude from, wrap around, and otherwise envelope their victims; sinister girls who can walk on ceilings – feel like they’d be at home in The Ring family of movies. However, the story (and especially the ending) nevertheless manages to be both unique and compelling. Chupeco puts an interesting, fresh spin on an old folk story that’s already received a fair amount of attention.

I love the cast of characters – everyone from Okiku and Tark to mom Yoko (who, let’s face it, made some questionable decisions vis-a-vis her son) and even Chiyo (who started out as one of the “good guys”). The only character who doesn’t seem terribly well-developed is Tark’s dad who, to be fair, is mostly absent from the story.

I especially appreciate the overall diversity: Okiku is originally from Japan, as is Tark’s mom Yoko Taneda. His parents met at Tokyo University, where both were attending college; Tark is biracial. Though the newly married couple relocated to the U.S., Tark and his father Doug return to Tokyo when he’s fifteen. A fairly large portion of the story transpires in Japan, and a number of supporting characters are Japanese, most notably the shrine maidens, Kagura, Saya, Machika, and Amaya. Japan isn’t just a set piece, but an integral part of the story.

The scenes which take place in Japan, particularly Yagen Valley and Himeji Castle, are among the most beautiful in the book. Chupeco has an eye for detail that’s evident in the lovely yet frighteningly desolate rural landscapes.

The ending, which involves an unexpected twist that’s ripe with future possibilities, is perhaps my favorite part. But it’s hard to say with so many shiny bits to choose from!

Read it if: you like scary stories; The Ring is your jam; you thought Season 5 was Dexter’s best.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! The narrator Okiku – the 300-year-old ghost of a 16-year-old girl – is from Japan, as is Tarquin Holloway’s mother Yoko Taneda. His parents met at Tokyo University, where both were attending college; Tark is biracial. A significant portion of the story takes place in Japan, and includes a number of Japanese supporting characters, most notably the shrine maidens, Kagura, Saya, Machika, and Amaya. The woman in black haunting Tark is Yoko’s older sister, Chiyo. Also, Yoko has spent the last decade or so in a mental institution.

Animal-friendly elements: Mostly n/a, though Okiku makes this observation about the dogs she encounters, which is as trenchant as it is incidental: “Collars are as much a form of slavery whether they encircle necks or wrists, whether they are as heavy as lead or as light as ropestring.” Also, meat is not consumed inside the Yagen Valley shrine, which is routinely purified for rituals (the implication being that meat is not pure).


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