Adam Miller, a successful marketing manager at a travel agency, visits Tokyo, Japan on business. During his trip, he has a one-night stand with a young Japanese woman, Miki Someya. But Miki latches onto him. She follows him—stalks him—through the streets of Tokyo, professing her love and begging for his. Adam manages to avoid her, but he loses control of himself when she confronts him and threatens to follow him home to tell his wife about their affair.
In a fit of drunken rage, Adam attacks her. He beats her black and blue, then he carves a smile on her face with a pair of shears. Afraid and ashamed, he flees the country and escapes prosecution.
But years later, when children start vanishing in his city and the only suspect is a woman with a scarred face, he suspects his past has followed him home…
Inspired by a classic urban legend, Jon Athan, the author of Lovesick and Maneater, brings you a disturbing new vision of sadistic romance.
“Am I Beautiful?” by Jon Athan is one of the nastiest books I’ve read- and I’ve read a lot of nasty books. In typical Jon Athan fashion (that rhymed), readers can expect conflicting emotions, blank dissociative stares at the wall and of course, plenty of dry-heaving. In case you haven’t already worked it out, this is not a book for people who are easily triggered: frankly it isn’t a book for anyone with any semblance of sympathy or… any feelings at all really.
In 2017 Adam Miller, high-profile businessman, and certified arsehole visited Tokyo to meet with international clients. On a relaxed night-out with his partner Dallas, he made his first big mistake, and cheated on his loving wife Amber. His second mistake? This affair was clearly more than a one-night stand to the rightfully pissed off Miki Soneya, who continues to follow him around the city in order to gain answers. His third, and biggest, mistake? Adam confronts Miki, and rather than calmly explaining his marital situation, takes a shattered glass bottle to her face, and brutally carves a “Glasgow smile.” He hops on the next flight back home, and tries to forget his despicable act of violence.
Three years later, lockdown hits, and Adam is confined to his home with his wife Amber, and beloved daughter Riley. Despite his failing travel business, he is happy. That’s until a string of brutal murders- complete with a signature Glasgow smile- begin to crop up… and they’re coming toward Adam. Miki has finally found him, and she’s not happy.
This is actually Athan’s depraved take on the urban Japanese legend “Kuchisake-onna,” or the “Slit-mouthed woman.” She is an onryō (malicious spirit) who partially covers her scarred face, and is armed with a pair of scissors- much like Miki in the second and third part of the novel. It’s incredibly clever to apply the COVID-19 pandemic to this particular legend. Not only did the pandemic make the novel feel more authentic and grounded in reality, but it also allowed Miki to slip under the radar using her mask. “The Slit-mouthed woman,” asks her victims “Am I beautiful?” if they say “Yes,” she reveals her face and repeats the question. Depending on their answer, she will then carve a similar smile onto their face (Yes) or kill them (No). Apparently, distracting her with money or candy is a way of escaping this fate, but predictably there’s no mercy in this splatter-fest version.
I immensely enjoyed Miki as the tragic antagonist. In part one she appears as bubbly, love-sick and (as Adam describes her) kawaii. Right up until Adam actually goes as far as to deform her, she looks for the good within him. This is juxtaposed completely when she bounces back from her injuries with a lust for revenge. Athan utilises her character to demonstrate how life can take the sweetest and most nurturing of people, and turn them into monsters. It’s really interesting. That being said, we are put in a tricky situation. Personally, I physically couldn’t find it within myself to root for Adam – who is consistently unlikable- but Miki’s actions go further than revenge, innocent people are brutalised and defaced, so you can’t gun for her either. By making both central characters so difficult to support, as readers we can only view the entire story as tragic- there are no winners. This is a “feel-bad” read.
As I briefly mentioned, the body horror here is some of the grossest I’ve come across. Some of the writing is so detailed, and the concept is so FOUL, I wished I could turn back time, and reconsider my taste in books. Athan’s writing is disturbed, and I mean that as a compliment. In the middle of the book, Miki sheds the blood of multiple randomers (including several children- so trigger warning there) and whilst each murder is different and well-written, I found it got slightly tiresome toward the end. I say that, but that’s clutching at straws. It’s 237 pages long, and the writing was so well-done, I couldn’t help but polish it off in just a few sittings.
In Jon Athan’s “Am I Beautiful?” depravity meets page-turning suspense in a narrative that leaves you horrified yet unable to stop reading. Athan well and truly displays his ability to make his readers squirm, forcing even the hardiest of readers cringe. We’re plunged into a whirlwind of violence, revenge, and a twisted kind of justice that leaves physical and emotional scars. Buckle up, hold on to your stomach, and remember to smile.