Graveyard of Memories  - Barry Eisler

I've been a big fan of John Rain since I read "Rain Fall". Yes, he's an assassin so you have all the (a)moral implications that go with it. But he always came across as more than just another testosterone infused hit man. He had a conscience, hard rules & regrets. As the books continued, we slowly learned about his personal life & the people he'd loved. Now we get to find out how it all began, how 20 year old Jun found himself at a crossroad & chose the path that would seal his fate.

It's 1972 & Rain is in Tokyo, the city he left when he was 8. His Japanese father had been killed & his white mother took him back to the states. Now she too is dead, the only tie he had to America. He just got out of Viet Nam & finds himself with few career options. He left the military under a cloud & is biding his time as a bagman for CIA handler Sean McGraw. It's easy work, greasing the wheels of Japanese politics for American interests. It's a simple set-up. 

Every now & then he meets up with Miyamoto, a middle aged local with a penchant for loud ties. They exchange identical bags, one with info, one with money. But Rain is about to embark on a steep learning curve, the education that will serve him well later on. Lesson #1: not everyone is who they say they are.

It all begins when Rain is attacked by three thugs after a routine exchange. He's not yet the self contained man we know & prone to impulsive actions. So he lets out all the frustration he's been carrying & fights back, killing one of the youths. He can't know it but this is the pivotal moment that leads to him becoming John Rain, professional assassin.

I don't want to reveal more of the plot because there are plenty of twists & misdirection employed by the author. The reader learns the truth behind the whole scheme as Rain does, although the scope of it is not evident 'til the end. 

It answers a lot of questions about him. We meet for the first time some of the characters who will pop up in later books & the significance of his appreciation for good whisky & great jazz. We learn why he was exiled from Japan for so long & watch as he develops the skills & rules that will become tenets of his later life. 

It's a book that tells 2 stories simultaneously. One is the current situation where Rain deals with members of the yakuza (criminal gang), political double crosses, his first contract killing & a lovely young Korean woman who will haunt him for the rest of his life. 

The second is the evolution of his character. The story is narrated by Rain as he looks back from decades in the future. He relates how it all happened while making wry observations about himself on the side. You feel like he's reliving it all in his mind's eye, mentally shaking his head, bemused & sad. This is a Rain who is philosophical, weary & carrying the weight of his actions. He accepts responsibility for his choices but that doesn't dampen the regret & sorrow he feels for the young man who could have had a very different life if he'd made different decisions.

I really enjoyed this but found it almost unbearably sad at times. With the advantage of knowing his future, you watch as the angry, young & disenfranchised Jun looks for his place & a sense of belonging. It's the genesis of his life as a loner with a foot in 2 cultures but fully accepted by neither one. 

By the end, Jun is dead. He's been replaced by John, a harder man just beginning to understand that with every action comes repercussions & wishing them undone is a fool's game.

"Sometimes there's just what you can do. And what you can't".