Though this narrative is structured as a suspenseful mystery, much of its interest lies in the telling way author Akiko Itoyama probes the emotional and psychological effects of sudden loss.
Hiromu Satō grew up in a regional Japanese city, earned his degree at the University of Tokyo, and landed a plum position in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. His work centers on dams built around the country for purposes of water resource management and river improvements. Four years after starting at the ministry, Hiromu is working at the administrative office of a remote dam, when a large black man named Hilbert Javel comes to call on him. Reporting that a stage actress named No’o, with whom Hiromu was once romantically involved, has left behind a small boy and disappeared from Paris, Javel asks for help in finding her. In Paris, No’o had married a man from Martinique named Félix, and they had had a boy, whom they named Butsuzō. As a fellow native of Martinique, Javel had taken the boy in. When Hiromu is subsequently sent by his ministry to UNESCO headquarters in Paris, he deepens his acquaintance with Javel and Butsuzō as he looks for leads on No’o’s whereabouts.
Hiromu’s refrigerator breaks down, and he begins a romantic relationship with the woman named Lucie who comes to repair it. Before long they are living together. Then a mutual friend named Guillaume is stabbed to death by a serial killer. The killer turns out to be none other than Félix, No’o’s husband and Butsuzō’s father.
No’o’s whereabouts remain elusive. The closest thing to a lead that turns up is a very brief appearance she makes as a bit player in a film produced in Israel in 2007. A classified document from the 1930s that Javel purchases from an antiques dealer describes a woman who sounds very much like No’o but goes by the name of Madame Allégorie. She is said to have traveled from Paris to Palestine, where she experienced some sort of time slip, was picked up by a wealthy Egyptian couple in Palestine, sent back to Paris, and joined up with a Jewish man named Samuel to help Jews flee the country.
When his two-year stint with UNESCO is over, Hiromu marries Lucie and takes her back to Japan with him. A short time later, Javel dies of cancer. In 2015, a pregnant Lucie makes a trip home to Paris, where she dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, taking the unborn child with her. The following year, Hiromu finds No’o in the small Kyūshū city where he now lives after quitting the ministry in the wake of his wife’s death. No’o has been hospitalized due to her enfeebled condition, and although she is still conscious, she cannot speak or express her wishes in any way. For a time she improves to where she can respond to questions in braille, but ultimately dies without saying anything about the mystery of her disappearance.
While shaping the plot as the story of a man pursuing a mystery woman who was once his lover, Itoyama deliberately skews the narrative away from puzzle-solving to focus instead on illumining the subtle movements of the human heart?especially in the face of loss.