At forty-one, Rob Fossick is drifting through life, his glory days as a photographer behind him. Some years previously, Rob’s wife died in an accident – and, as the book opens, his mother, Alice, dies in a fall whilst Rob is visiting her care home. Just before she went out on to the patio where she fell, Alice showed Rob a shoebox and said, ‘The plan is to deliver it to Mr Satoshi’. Talking to one of his mother’s friends at the home, Rob discovers that ‘Mr Satoshi’ was a nickname for a man named Reggie, with whom Alice was in love before she ever met Rob’s father, and now apparently resident (if, that is, he’s still alive) in Japan.
This man now becomes the focus of Rob’s life. Having mentioned Japan in passing to his agent, Rob finds himself travelling there, ostensibly to take the photographs that will re-ignite his career, but really to track down Reggie/Satoshi and hand him Alice’s package. Rob falls in with a student named Chiyoko, who also works as a receptionist at a ‘love hotel’ in Tokyo; and, together, they set about trying to find out the truth about the mysterious Mr Satoshi.
What strikes me in particular about Jonathan Lee’s first novel is that, for all that the question posed by the title is central to the novel – really, it’s the very engine that drives the story – in some ways it is one of its less interesting aspects. The answer to ‘who is Mr Satoshi?’ is less important, I think, than what the mystery represents to Rob Fossick – it doesn’t just promise the truth about his mother’s life, it also brings purpose to Rob’s life (though he might not recognise or admit the latter). Lee is particularly good at showing the changes in Rob’s character: his reclusiveness and reliance on pills make it hard for him to deal with the bustle and noise of Tokyo at first; but the eye of the photographer is still there, though it takes the ups and downs of Rob’s relationship with Chiyoko to bring it to the fore.
Thy mystery of Satoshi itself is quite interesting, but I don’t think it would have pulled me through the book if it hadn’t been bolstered by the deft characterisation of Rob. And I do feel that the novel concentrates on the mystery to the extent that some of the broader detail that could have rounded the book out more is pushed out. But Who is Mr Satoshi? is a welcome debut, and it will be interesting to see what Lee does next.