Butter by Asako Yuzuki Review: Chew the Fat

Written in 2017, but newly published in English, Yuzuki’s novel is both whodunnit thriller and friendship novel with a culinary theme

To get behind the defences of any foodie in your life, there’s a simple trick: ask them how to make a certain dish. Food lovers, claims one character in Butter, ‘are so delighted when someone asks them for a recipe that they’ll tell you all kinds of things you haven’t asked for along with it’. This tactic drives the plot of the novel, when a journalist, Rika Machida, asks for a beef-stew recipe from Manako Kajii, a hedonistic gourmand recently convicted of scamming and murdering a series of men. Kajii, in overpublicised court hearings, maintained she was innocent, but has since refused to tell her story to anyone.

Thus begins the correspondence that drives this slow-burn thriller, based on a true story, in which Machida attempts to get the scoop on Kajii, ‘whose days were spent shopping and eating’. When, that is, she was not allegedly scamming money from and killing off older men. Under the ruse of seeking cooking tips, Machida tries to figure out the truth. As Kajii’s simple tips, like making rice with soy sauce and butter, advance to more specific, and peculiar, dining instructions – such as eating noodles from a specific ramen shop after having sex – you start to wonder who is leading on whom. What follows is a game of cat and mouse, enacted through hungrily wetted lips and told with the kind of eager, searching language used to recount a favourite meal. To use Western analogies, it’s like The Martha Stewart Show meets The Silence of the Lambs.

The book oozes with descriptions of taste and how ways of seeing the world can become imbued with food. Machida’s first bite of the buttered rice is ‘a shining golden wave, with an astounding depth of flavour and a faint yet full and rounded aroma’, all of which ‘wrapped itself around the rice and washed Rika’s body far away’. We follow as she begins to taste more and more, progressing from a professional too busy to think about food to a hungry sensavore eager to try everything. Her revelations and insights into understanding the convict, as well as her own body and her relationships to those around her, come through preparing and sharing food: making spaghetti with roe or a quatre-quarts for her on-off boyfriend, a macaroni gratin for her friend’s estranged husband, a roasted turkey for the extended, improvised family she has managed to gather around her through the butter-laced journey in the book. We know how deeply she has immersed herself in this new food-oriented world when, later in the book, she describes seeing Kajii in a courtroom, facing retrial, as looking ‘like a giant blancmange’, and the magazine’s gossip-hungry readership as ‘starved of calorific substances. They’re super responsive to anything with a whiff of crunch or excess about it.’

Written in 2017, but newly published in English, Yuzuki’s narrative is based in part on the real-life ‘Konkatsu Killer’. The woman was convicted of fraud and the murder of men she had met on dating sites; despite some of the evidence being inconclusive, she was put to death. In the book, the media frenzy around Kajii’s case focuses on her unashamed dedication to both pleasing men and pleasing herself: ‘what the public found most alarming, evening more than Kajii’s lack of beauty, was the fact that she was not thin’. At times Butter dresses itself up as a whodunnit thriller, and at others a friendship novel, delivered in even, earnestly narrated episodes that feel cookie-cutter ready for an eight-part television adaptation. But it’s the uneasy, persistent social misogyny, and how it polices social norms and expectations, that is the novel’s true focus. Simmering through the book is the refrain that each of us has to learn to listen to our own tastes, desires and sense of satiation to find what constitutes a ‘good amount’. Butter gives a healthy, easy-reading serving of social commentary, where only the gluttonous are innocent.

Butter by Asako Yuzuki, translated by Polly Barton. 4th Estate, £14.99 (softcover)

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