Out by Natsuo Kirino


This is the first Japanese crime novel I’ve read and if they’re all as good as this I may become addicted. There’s a great deal of atmosphere, tension and clever characterisation which are all things I love in a book. The plot centres around four women who work in the graveyard shift in a bento box factory in the suburbs of Tokyo. One of the women finally cracks and brutally strangles her philandering husband with her belt and then enlists the three other women to help hide the body. The situation gets more desperate when the police discover the body and the owner of a gambling club is accused of the murder leading him to search for the real culprits.

The story opens with the bleak drudgery of the factory work and captures perfectly the grimness of being in a dead end job that pretty much all of us can relate to. I definitely felt instant empathy with the character Masako from the start as she smoked in the factory car park. Kirino flawlessly captures the feeling when a day is so dismal that a cigarette is the only highlight you can look forward to.

We begin with the point of view of Masako and move through the other characters throughout the book. There was Masako herself, Yayoi the weak willed beautiful woman married to a gambler, Yoshie whose life revolves around her bedridden mother in law and sullen daughter and Kuniko a sly girl obsessed with designer brands and heavily in debt. We also spread to beyond the factory to the families of the four women, a beautiful Chinese hostess in a gambling club and a slick money lender. All the characters had a touchable human element, even Kuniko who I started out despising but ended pitying for the shallowness of her life.

The atmosphere of this novel is perfect and I saw every scene in my mind in shades of monochrome like film noir. Despite the gore and grimness of the plot this book is very enjoyable and even strangely humorous in a black deadpan way. The language is stark and plain with each word crafted carefully into place with random splashes of poetic imagery like when a money lender describing Kuniko as a girl you could see through like a jellyfish.  Despite being a clever and thickly plotted novel the story is highly readable and very addictive. I read through it in two days desperate to see what happened next as the four women dug themselves into a darker and darker hole.

“You know,” she murmured, “we’re all heading straight to hell.”
“Yes,” said Masako, giving her a bleak look. “It’s like riding downhill with no brakes.”
“You mean, there’s no way to stop?”
“No, you stop all right – when you crash.”

I found Masako to be the biggest mystery in this book in what motivates her and what she feels but strangely she is the character I feel most comfortable reading about. I won’t say like because I’m still not quite sure if I actually like any of these characters but I certainly loved reading about them. Kirino balances character driven plot with layers of social and political commentary of ordinary life in Japan for women and the dangers of moneylenders and heavy debt. Money and the need of it drives half the evil in this book and pushes the characters beyond their moral compasses.


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