Saturday, April 30, 2016

Out (book) by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder

Out is a Japanese thriller.

I've opted not to include any read-alikes, but my review does include a few spoilers. Read at your own risk.


Warning: This book includes on-page instances of rape, torture, murder, and corpse dismemberment. On the plus side, there is a cat, and it is neither hurt (at least not that I remember) nor killed. I spent the whole book worrying that something was going to happen to that cat.

Anyway, Out tells the story of four women who work the night shift at a boxed-lunch factory in Tokyo. Yayoi is the mother of two small children. Her husband goes out drinking and gambling every night and has started physically abusing her. Kuniko hides her lack of self-confidence under expensive makeup and clothes she can't afford. She's so buried in loans that she struggles just to pay the interest. Yoshie is a widow, mother, and caretaker for her elderly mother-in-law. She works at the factory seven nights a week and, even so, only barely makes enough to support herself, her mother-in-law, and her increasingly rebellious and distant teenage daughter. Masako is the most mysterious of them all. She used to have a job at a company somewhere, and she seems too cool and composed to be working the night shift at the factory.

While these four women aren't exactly friends, they make a good team at the factory. That's why, when Yayoi suddenly snaps and kills her husband, the first person she can think of to turn to is Masako. Masako agrees to take care of everything and enlists Yoshie's help. Due to a stroke of enormously bad luck, Kuniko also gets involved. With all these people in on the secret, will they really be able to avoid being found out by the police? Then there's the question they didn't consider, didn't even know they had to consider: will they be able to evade Satake, the man to whom Yayoi's husband owed money?

The back of this book calls this a “masterpiece of literary suspense and a pitch-black comedy of gender warfare.” And also “a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.” I can see where some of that came from, but overall I think it's misleading.

For one thing, these women were not friends. Not at all. The only person who believed that was Yayoi, who was a bit silly and prone to believing her own lies. Yoshie believed in Masako's strength and knew that the horrible things they did together created a kind of bond, but I don't think she was stupid enough to truly think they were friends. Masako was a strange mix of leader and loner, and Kuniko only looked out for herself.

I'm also not sure where the “pitch-black comedy of gender warfare” stuff came in. This book wasn't so much darkly comedic as it was just...dark. And I wouldn't have said it was about gender warfare. I mean, gender played a part in the story, but not in the way the back of the book led me to expect. Yoshie felt defeated when she realized that her teenage daughter could get a higher-paying job than her, simply because she was younger and cuter. Kuniko wanted to get a job as a hostess, but wasn't pretty enough to even get a second glance. Masako spent 22 years at her company, only to be driven out when she asked for higher pay after realizing that the men who'd started working there at the same time as her made far more than she did. The best (or only) job any of them could find was the night shift at the factory. The odd hours they worked created an even bigger rift between themselves and society and their families.

Disposing of Yayoi's husband's body gave them all the beginnings of a way out of their situations, but it also drove them even deeper into the gutter life had led them into. Although Yoshie and Kuniko's initial reactions to the idea of cutting up a corpse was horror, they were both soon seduced by the prospect of money. Masako was harder to figure out. Even now, I'm not sure that I understand her.

I'm the sort of reader who prefers stories with at least one likeable character I can root for. This book had maybe two people who weren't awful in some way, but no truly likeable characters. As for characters I could root for, Masako came the closest. I wouldn't have mourned if the cops had closed in on her, but when it came to the tense cat-and-mouse game in the last quarter of the book, I wanted her to succeed. I was more repulsed by Satake than I was by her.

The corpse dismemberment scenes were gross, but they didn't bother me anywhere near as much as the flashbacks to Satake's past and the possibility of what he might do later on in the book. When he was younger (maybe a teenager? I can't remember), he went after a woman with the intention of scaring her. Instead, he raped and tortured her, stabbed her, and then raped her some more as she bled out. The first flashback was very short and read, at first, like a regular sex scene until it became obvious that the “warm, sticky liquid” (37) was actually blood. The next couple flashbacks were even longer, although thankfully not quite as erotically written as the first one. I'd have preferred it if the longest one of the bunch had been cut, but unfortunately it turned out to be setup for a scene near the end of the book.

Here's where I get into spoiler spoiler territory, but I really feel like I should write about it. The last 15 pages of this book were brutal – more rape, more torture, and then more rape. What made it even worse was Kirino first wrote everything from Satake's POV and then wrote the exact same scenes from Masako's POV. All that awfulness, twice. I might have handled it better if Masako had been able to hold onto her rage, and if she had felt triumphant at the end. Instead, Kirino diluted all of that with Stockholm syndrome.

Despite several difficult to believe moments (for starters, what kind of security company gives out the home address of one of their employees to random callers?), this was mostly a very gripping story. Unfortunately, the ending just did not work for me. I doubt I'll seek out any of Kirino's other books.

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