Book Review: The Suffering (The Girl from the Well #2), Rin Chupeco (2015)

August 31st, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“Just a boy and his ghost.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence.)

Okiku was the first person in my life who was completely mine, in the same way that I was the only person that had ever been completely hers. She taught me to face my inner demons, that their presence did not mean I was broken. She loved my darkness, and I loved her light.

I’m no hero, but I do have a superpower. Except my superpower tends to wander off when she’s bored.

It’s been two years since the malevolent spirit of his aunt Chiyo, formerly a powerful miko, was purged from Tarquin Holloway’s body – with the help of his mother Yoko, the Chinsei shrine maidens, and Okiku, the 300-year-old ghost of a 16-year-old servant girl. Now seventeen, Tark’s life has returned to normal – ish : a high school senior in Washington, DC, Tark looks forward to graduation and college. He gets good grades, despite his occasional nightly outings; and, though he doesn’t have many friends – weird things always seem to happen around Tark, making him the subject of gossip and suspicion – at least the other kids have stopped bullying him. Well, mostly.

But just because the yuurei of an insane relative no longer inhabits his body, doesn’t mean that Tark has freed himself from the spirit world completely. Once a body’s been used as a vessel, it’s vulnerable to future possession; and so Okiku, the yuurei with a conscience, has decided to stick around and protect this boy that she’s inexplicably come to adore. Together, they wage a constant battle against their inner demons – by conquering monsters, both human (Okiku) and supernatural (Tark), in the physical world.

Okiku is an avenging spirit; she kills killers, and in the process frees the souls of his victims so that they can move on to the afterworld. And with Okiku’s help, as well as extensive training from Kagura Kino, one of the Japanese shrine maidens who saved his life, Tark hunts malevolent spirits, trapping them in dolls to be destroyed at the Obon festival in Japan. (“The first time I made the trip to Japan with compromised dolls in tow, I actually worried if customs inspected visitors’ baggage for sentience. They didn’t.”) Saving people, hunting things – the family business.

All in all, they make a pretty rad team: that is, until Ki cuts down one of Tark’s classmates, golden boy and star quarterback Keren McNeil. He’s a serial rapist who’s about to escalate to murder. Tark thinks it wrong to murder someone for future crimes, while Ki believes it justified to save his would-be victims. Further straining their relationship is Tark’s budding romance with Kendele Baker, a very real, flesh and blood girl who’s also taken a shining to him.

But all this falls by the wayside when their old friend Kagura goes missing. Contacted by a group of American ghost hunters in search of the fabled village of Aitou, Kagura agrees to serve as the group’s guide. For Kagura, this mission is personal: her own father, the historian Kazuhiko Kino, spent his life researching Aitou. He disappeared a decade ago, just as he was on the cusp of a breakthrough. But just days after their departure, the octet goes missing: they walked into the Aokigahara forest, never to be heard from again.

Naturally, Tark and his cousin Callie travel to Japan to aid in the search. Before you can say “Avengers assemble,” Tark and Ki stumble into a village cursed by a botched, centuries-old ritual, undertaken by a power-hungry wizard to open and harness the power of a hell’s gate: “To live forever, one must use the gate. To live forever, eight must be sacrificed. To close the gate, seven must suffer. To rule the gate, the eighth must be willing.” Foiled by his own daughter, the souls of the sacrificed girls now rampage through a village of ghosts – and it’s up to a boy and his ghost to stop them.

If you enjoyed The Girl from the Well, chances are you’ll love The Suffering. It’s got the same wry sense of humor, creepy-fun vibe, and fast-paced plot as its predecessor. Whereas The Girl from the Well is told from Okiku’s point of view, the sequel switches the focus to Tark, giving the duo (I don’t want to call it a duology, since The Suffering sets the stage for another sequel) a wonderful, complementary feel. (Just like Tark and Ki!) I don’t think you need to read The Girl from the Well to appreciate The Suffering – the plot’s lucid enough to stand on its own – but why on earth wouldn’t you want to?

One of my favorite parts of The Suffering is seeing Tark function in a normal high school setting – since he’s anything but. The juxtaposition of the mundane and supernatural – which, for Tark, often bleed into one another – is really compelling, as his relationship with Ki. Their already “complicated” partnership becomes further convoluted when Tark is wooed by Kendele, a cheerleader at his school. The already awkward ritual of teenage courtship is even weirder for Tark, who’s never alone: Ki can’t wander more than half a mile without other ghosts trying to move in on her territory.

And over the years, he’s come to love Ki, who would lay down her (half-)life for his. Whether she’s wearing a visage of death and decay – or, in those rare moments when she assumes the human form of the girl she used to be – Tark thinks she’s lovely, just the way she is. But is a healthy courtship possible when one of them is dead and inhabits the other? When they have a literal window into each others’ minds? When one of them will continue to age while the other – or her aspect, anyway – remains frozen in time?

Killing seven-armed ghosts is a piece of cake compared to dating while possessed!

While most of the action unfolds in Japan, it was the rape subplot, introduced early on, that really grabbed my attention. While out hunting, Ki leads Tark to a high school party – one that Kendele’s friend Trish invited him to, it just so happens – where she identifies football star Keren McNeil as a serial rapist. Suddenly, Trish’s skittishness around him makes sense; he’s been harassing her, a behavior Ki insists will soon escalate to rape – and then murder. Tark insists that she not kill him, because a) they only hunt murderers, and rape isn’t murder; b) you can’t punish someone for a future- or thought-crime; and c) they only punish people who the law cannot touch. Ki disagrees, arguing that exceptions are okay to save future victims. After all, that’s how she met Tark: her desire to save rather than merely avenge.

Let’s start with a, which is likely a matter of preference. I’m 1000% down with Ki adding serial rapists to her hit list, right alongside murderers. Rape is a horrible violation. The majority of rapes are committed by a small number of repeat offenders. McNeil already has three victims to his name. In the words of Ki: filthy necks kill strangle him take him take the eyes. Besides, this is fantasy, right? I don’t support the death penalty in real life, but I do love a good rape revenge story. The Girl from the Well was billed as Dexter meets The Grudge (VERY ACCURATE) – and I think we all know which season of Dexter was my absolute favorite, yeah?

Additionally, and this goes to point c: rape is the single most under-reported, under-investigated, under-prosecuted, under-punished crime in the history of all the worlds. 98% of rapists are never held accountable for their actions. We live in a rape culture (of which Tark seems blissfully ignorant), and the “justice” system reflects this.

Of course, to bring him to justice, you’d have to put his victims though the agony of an investigation and trial, where they’d be victim-blamed and slut-shamed by, at the very least, McNeil’s defense attorney (and possibly the whole damn community). And for what, when Ki’s willing and able to end this shit right here, right now?

Unsurprisingly, none of McNeil’s victims are especially eager to come forward, not even in the wake of his death. He’s the golden boy, the star quarterback, and is worshiped by the students and parents at Pembrooke High. They’re on Twitter. They read the news. They understand the backlash that they’re likely to encounter should they accuse a classmate – and not just any classmate, but a revered athlete – with rape.

So, yeah. Unless Ki dispatches him, McNeil is unlikely to be punished for his crimes.

B almost isn’t a worth a mention; Tark has never questioned Ki’s information before, so why start now? If she says that McNeil is going to kill someone, we have to take her at her word. She’s a medium, ferchrissakes.

Oh, Tark. I hope you plan on taking a women’s studies course or two in college. We could really use your superpowers in the feminist movement.

To be fair, I think this conflict is part of the standard light vs. dark, justice vs. vengeance, good vs. evil struggle that we force many of our fictional heroes to undergo; and it seems to resolve itself somewhat in the end. I don’t adore Tark any less for it; but school him in rape culture, I feel I must.

/ rant

ANYWAY. The Suffering is really quite entertaining, and with its emphasis on Japanese culture and mythology, it’s a welcome addition to my “diverse reads” bookshelf. Some parts feel a little redundant vis-à-vis the first book; this, along with Tark’s ignorance re: rape culture, is the reason I rated it 4 stars instead of 5. Still a very enjoyable read, and a really nifty companion to The Girl from the Well. You learned about the ghost, now meet her boy(friend?).

(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 seventeen-year-old MC, Tarquin “Tark” Holloway, is biracial: his now-deceased mother Yoko was born in Japan, and she and his white American father met at at Tokyo University, where both were attending college. Now a high school senior in Washington, DC, Tark is frequently the subject of racist bullying. Okiku (“Ki”), Tark’s ghost protector, was also born in Japan; she was murdered over 300 years ago by her lord’s retainer. Most of the story takes place in Japan; when their friend Kagura Kino sets out with a group of American ghost hunters in search of the fabled village of Aitou, only to go missing, Tark and his cousin Callie travel to Japan to help in the search. There they encounter the ghosts of seven Japanese girls (all named) sacrificed by a wizard in the 1800s, as well as the souls of the villagers killed in the aftermath of the botched ritual. The seventh girl, Oimikada Hotoke, whose rebellion prevented her father from assuming control over a hell’s gate, has blue eyes just like Tark. We lean from her diary that this unusual coloring – attributed to her mother, who belonged to an Auni tribe – made her the subject of suspicion and distrust.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. In fact, Tark – who’s love of meat was established in The Girl from the Well – seems to consume every fish under sun during the course of The Suffering.


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