Book Review: Parasite Eve

Parasite Eve, by Hideaki Sena (translated by Tyran Grillo)

There are two things you’re going to understand very well by the time you finish Parasite Eve; how to do a kidney transplant, and how mitochondria work. But let’s dial it back a little first.

Parasite Eve is probably best known to western audiences for the video game series released by Square back in the 90s. Before that, however, it was a novel written by Hideaki Sena, Ph.D., a pharmacologist whose day job consisted of working with mitochondria and conducting various tests on them. This is important to keep in mind, because although this is a horror novel at heart, it’s also incredibly well researched and comes at you from a sound scientific basis. Sena knows what he’s talking about, because this stuff is literally what he gets paid for, day in, day out.

The novel tells the story of a young woman named Kiyomi. Inside Kiyomi’s cells lives Eve, mitochondria that have evolved over billions of years to become sentient and are now ready to break away from their masters and achieve their full potential. Their masters being us, and their potential being the annihilation of the human race. The novel opens on Eve, living in a symbiotic relationship within Kiyomi’s cells, causing her to crash her car. Eve has a plan, you see, and the first and most important part of it involves getting Kiyomi out of the way. The accident leaves Kiyomi brain-dead, much to her husband Toshiaki’s distress. Toshiaki is a biological science researcher who works with mitochondria, and it is through him that Eve plans to achieve her goals.

The story is told from the POV of several unwitting players in Eve’s game. There’s Mariko, the junior high student who needs a new kidney. Her doctor, Dr Yoshizumi, who still laments the fact Mariko’s first kidney transplant failed for some unknown reason. Then there’s Sachiko Asakura, Toshiaki’s student who is working on her graduation thesis. The story jumps regularly between all of these characters and occasionally time as well, taking us back to various episodes of Kiyomi’s past where Eve made herself known and laid the groundwork that would allow her to achieve her Final Form. It’s an effective way of storytelling, keeping the tension high and allowing the mystery of how all these characters tie together deepen.

But that kidney transplant.

I don’t think there’s a single review of Parasite Eve out there that doesn’t touch on the kidney transplant. After Kiyomi is pronounced brain-dead and revealed to have signed up as an organ donor while she was alive, Toshiaki agrees to having her kidneys removed under the condition that he receives her liver. Something is telling him to culture her cells, and while it’s not ethical, kidneys for transplants are few and far between, so an agreement is reached. The hospital gets her kidneys, Toshiaki gets her liver. The novel proceeds to spend the first third, that’s 30%, talking about this kidney transplant in full detail. You will know how to perform a kidney transplant by the time you are done here. Right down to the things you never knew you needed to know. The book comes with an appendix of medical papers and sources that Sena drew his research from. At times it’s like you’re reading a medical textbook. There are a lot of big names for body parts you never knew existed, and the story breaks it down, step by step, describing every single part of the process for you. From the moment Kiyomi is pronounced dead, until long after Mariko has received her new kidney and is in aftercare, you will know exactly how a kidney transplant is performed, how to look after it, potential complications and how to avoid them, and even how people are matched for compatible kidneys. It’s all in there. One third of the book. I hope you like kidney transplants.

It’s a little difficult to review Parasite Eve and not mention the other elephant in the room; those rape scenes. Yes, that’s scenes. Plural. To get slightly spoilery, Eve’s goal is to make babies. To make babies you need sperm, and because Eve has decided Toshiaki, the mitochondrial researcher, is the only man who understands her, she chooses him to be the baby daddy. He, of course, doesn’t take so kindly to this mass of goo and cultural liquids that’s going around killing people and proclaiming her superiority over mankind, so how is she supposed to get his precious seed? By raping him. As a giant mass of goo. The story again goes into detail of how she’s able to do this, seeing as she’s able to influence the mitochondria in his own cells as well, but it’s pretty horrific and not very pleasant to imagine. But being a giant mass of mitochondrial goo, she for some reason can’t gestate the baby herself. She needs a fresh womb for it, one that can handle both human and her own unique mitochondrial DNA. Good thing there’s a 14-year-old girl who just received a fancy new kidney that has been spreading its cells throughout her body! The book again goes into detail of how Eve forms a goo-penis to impregnate this unconscious girl with the egg she’s been carrying around since she raped Toshiaki. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d say during my lifetime. At the end of the day the novel is horror, but I personally could have lived without the finer details of these scenes myself. Be warned. There are not one but two goo-rape scenes.

But that aside, I loved this novel. The concept is incredibly unique and apparently came to the author whilst he was watching a documentary. He came to wonder might happen if mitochondria had a will of its own and decided to break out of its symbiotic relationship with us. You will understand how mitochondria works and the role it plays in our bodies very well by the end of this book, but I never once found any of the scientific details to be a drawback. On the contrary, that made the story all the more scary. It’s very clearly fiction, but the idea that your own cells could revolt and do whatever they want to you, take control of your will and your body is terrifying. There’s a lot of explaining of scientific and medical terms, but I never felt they dragged the book out—even when one third of it was a single kidney transplant. That’s how inviting the writing is. The English translation is solid as well. A few strange word choices or phrases here and there, but overall not enough to detract from the story. And considering the content the translator had to deal with, he did a pretty darn good job.

Is this a good novel? Yes. Should you read it? If you want some ‘classic’ Japanese horror, yes. Like The Ring or Ju-on, Parasite Eve is one of the staples of the Japanese horror boom from the late 1990s, and for good reason. It’s a damn unsettling book.

4 1/2 goo monsters out of 5. Could have used perhaps just a little less kidney transplant.

 

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