Honeybees and Distant Thunder

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Honeybees and Distant Thunder
Author: Riku Onda
Specifications: ISBN  978-4344030039
507 pages
13.7 x 19.6 cm / 5.4 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Gentosha Inc.
Tokyo, 2016
Awards: Booksellers Award, 2017
Naoki Prize, 2016
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


Set at a fictitious international piano competition that has become a key stepping-stone for rising young classical pianists, this Grand Hotel–style novel traces with richly textured detail the multiple rounds of judging that span more than two weeks.

For the last 15 years, the Yoshigae International Piano Competition has been held every three years in the Japanese coastal city that gives it its name, and this year brings its sixth iteration. The event’s international prestige has been on the rise in recent years as its winners have repeatedly gone on to win even more celebrated competitions. Through preliminary auditions held in Moscow, Paris, Milan, and New York as well as Yoshigae, 90 contestants from around the world are selected to enter the formal competition in Japan. Of those who compete in the first round, just 24 go on to a second, 12 to a third, and six to a final round. Events unfold with the immediacy and suspense of a live broadcast as the proceedings are presented through multiple perspectives that include the young pianists themselves, judges, organizers, reporters covering the event, and others.

The four main characters have arrived at the competition from highly distinctive backgrounds. Jin Kazama, 16, is a diamond in the rough—an unpolished but miraculous prodigy who appeared, in effect, out of nowhere at the Paris auditions. The son of a beekeeper who moves about frequently from one part of France to another, he grew up almost never going to school. His family owns no piano, but possessing perfect pitch, he taught himself at a young age to tune the instrument, and is able to make any piano do his bidding no matter where he goes. His entry form lists no prior competitions or performances, and for music schools attended says only that he is currently a “special auditor” at the Paris Conservatory (Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse). But what cannot help but catch the judges’ attention on the otherwise nearly blank form is a simple note that Jin studied under the legendary pianist Yūji von Hoffmann from the age of five and comes to the competition with a letter of recommendation from him. In this letter addressed to the judges, the recently deceased Hoffmann describes Jin as both a “gift” and a “powerful drug.” The main plot of the story centers on what had led Hoffman, known for turning away virtually all requests for private instruction, to go out of his way to mentor Jin, and why he had set things in motion for Jin to come before the judges and the world of classical music in this way.

Aya Eiden, 20, was a child prodigy who won a number of junior competitions both in Japan and abroad at a very young age, and went on to release a CD. Then tragedy struck when she was only 13: her mother, who was also her manager, died. After bolting from her first concert following her mother’s death, Aya broke off her career as a professional pianist. But she ultimately went on to college at the urging of a music-school classmate of her mother who is now the president of a leading college of music, and she has entered the competition in the hope of making a comeback.

The tall and handsome Masaru Carlos Levi Anatole, 19, currently attends the Julliard School in Manhattan and is known as “the prince.” His mother is a third-generation Japanese-Peruvian and his father is a French physicist. He lived in Japan from the age of five to seven, at which time Aya had invited him along to her piano class and started him on his way to becoming a pianist. They are reunited for the first time in more than a dozen years as rivals at Yoshigae.

Akashi Takashima is 28, the maximum eligible age for the competition. Giving up on a performance career, he had gone to work for a musical instrument store, gotten married, and started a family, but he still harbors regrets and has entered the competition for one last shot. He has known Aya and been a fan of hers from the time of her debut.

These four characters are inspired by one another’s performances to take their own playing to new levels, and each of them shows remarkable growth even during the short span of the contest as they surmount the hurdles that rise in their way one after another. Takashima is eliminated in the second round—though he ultimately receives a special commendation as well as a special jury prize—after which the focus narrows to the other three highly gifted players.

Jin is secretly on a mission from Hoffmann to “take the music outside and set it free.” A pianist serving as one of the judges concludes that Hoffmann had seen something in the purity and innocence of Jin’s relationship with music that other musicians were missing, and he wanted Jin to act as a catalyst to make the other talents in the competition bloom.

Author Riku Onda asks the big questions about the essential nature of music and what it means to us, while also taking up the extremely difficult challenge of making pages filled with silent characters sing with music—and she has acquitted herself splendidly on both counts in what is without question her greatest achievement to date.