Out – Natsuo Kirino – Book Review
Out is a literary crime novel by Natsuo Kirino. It was first published in Japan in the late nineties and the English translation by Stephen Snyder came out in 2003. I found my copy in a charity shop where the phrase ‘perverse feminism’ in a cover comment, along with the fact that it won the Japanese Grand Prix award for crime fiction, persuaded me to part with a couple of quid.
The story concerns four friends who work the night shift in a boxed-lunch factory. One of them murders her abusive husband and the others help her to cover up the crime, but this is only the start. What follows is a mixture of horror and farce as this unconventional psychological thriller unwinds in the suburbs of Tokyo.
The way the husband’s body is dealt with is pretty grisly and I was close to discarding the book here as I couldn’t have coped with that level of graphic gore throughout, but thankfully the author eased up a little, at least until later on.
Of the women, it is not the killer – little pretty Yayoi, who drives the novel, but her colleague Masako. Masako is a strange figure, steely and smart, she has admirable qualities but isn’t easy to like. Yoshie is the oldest, most sympathetic of the women, and Kuniko the least sympathetic and most shallow, although she did feel a little easy – too much of a stereotype. There are some well drawn male characters; a local nightclub owner, Satake, who has a very dodgy secret and an interest in finding out who the killers are, and then there’s Jumonji, a loan shark with big ideas who further complicates the plot. None of the characters are particularly likeable.
There is some excellent subplotting and it all comes together without feeling too contrived. For some reason I was reminded of the film ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’, even though I’m sure many people would struggle to draw comparison.
As for the ‘perverse feminism’, well I’d disagree with that. There were some interesting points made about the womens status in society, but I’d imagine the comment was based more on the reasoning that it’s a story about four women who commit a crime, which isn’t enough to make it feminist. There were actually some distinctly anti-feminist elements, such as the idea that one character was pleased by the idea that she looked young enough to be an attractive target for a ‘pervert’ who had sexually assaulted some of the workers and was known to hang around near the factory. I found there to be some strange fallacies around the issue of sexual violence. Maybe there was a problem in the translation. I have heard the translation criticised, especially the ending, and wonder if a female translator would have done a better job, particularly with regard to translating female thoughts and emotions in a rape scene.
Out isn’t just about a crime and it’s repercussions. At times it reads like a meditation on the pointlessness of existence. It explores the question of how well we can ever know another person and what acts they, and ourselves, are capable of. Kirino is pretty good at creating atmosphere too. The womens’ daily three minute journey along an ‘unpaved, ill-lit road’ between car park and factory had me tense every time.
At 416 pages Out is a lengthy read and took me longer to get through than anything I’ve read in a while. I found I was happy to read a little each night, but wasn’t so taken by it that I either stayed up late or started reading chunks of it during the day. Some sections flowed much better than others and I was occasionally bored, but it had enough hooks to keep me with it until the somewhat bizarre end.
In summary Out is a decent enough novel, but it’s not light reading and can be gruesome. It’s clever, atmospheric and unconventional, but longer than it needs to be and not always a page turner.