Review: Out by Natsuo Kirino

Title: Out

Author: Natsuo Kirino

Publisher: Vintage Books [originally 1997, this translation 2004]

ISBN: 978-0-099-47228-5

Length: 520 pages

Setting: Japan, present day

Genre: Psychological thriller / Noir

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating: 2/5

One-liner: A desolate tale of hopelessness and body parts.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Four women work the night shift at a lunch box filling factory in Japan. Their jobs are back-breaking and dull, their husbands universally boorish and their futures look equally desolate. One of the women, Yayoi, kills her husband when she’s tipped over the edge by his abuse. The other three women are drawn, one by one, into the effort to keep Yayoi from being caught. When a local pimp and club owner is accused by the police of the brutal murder the women think they’re home free but life doesn’t work out quite so neatly.

This is one of the bleakest books I have read in a very long time. The story is monotonous as it meanders from one depressing incident to the next while the characters are uninteresting and almost completely devoid of humanity. Even if you can overcome the unending dreariness that permeates this story I’m not convinced it has much else to offer. Perhaps in her zeal to depict Japanese society in a confronting way (virtually everyone is racist, all the men are misogynists, no one seems to place much value on a human life and there’s a whole load of gore) the author forgot to tell an engaging, entertaining story. I admire people who dare to show the more insidious aspects of a culture, but if writers choose fiction (rather than non-fiction) as their medium to do that then they have to entertain as well as inform and this book did not entertain me at all.

For a start there’s very little conflict and even less suspense which are two things even an average crime novel should have in spades. We know virtually from the outset whodunit and why. The only vaguely interesting question is whether or not she will get away with it but as she’s a two dimensional caricature it doesn’t seem to matter much and I was in little doubt that whatever the facts of the ending it wouldn’t be a happy one. And if I could have ignored all of that I would still have struggled with the credibility factor. I could perhaps have bought that all the characters would be so blithely unaffected by the piling up of body parts around them but when the supposedly smartest of the women completely fails to see really obvious danger ahead and then throws herself stupidly into the dumbest of femjep scenarios I lost what remaining interest I had.

Then there are the characters who are all so detached from each other and the events going on in their lives that I as a reader was never terribly interested in what happened to any of them either. I should, for example, have been outraged when one of the women, Masako, was shown to have a past in which she was treated abominably by her employers merely because she was a woman. But I didn’t have any sense of her as a person and was more bored by the umpteenth revelation that life (for these people anyway) sucks.

Finally there’s the writing which leads to the unnecessary length. The best noir fiction is concise and memorable often for what is left unsaid but this book is excruciatingly long. It’s overly repetitive and contains a plethora of detailed descriptions of events and trains-of-thought that add nothing to the story.

In short I was underwhelmed by this novel. What could have been an interesting depiction of the treatment of women in modern Japanese society was, for me anyway, lost in the tedious, gore-filled story and dull characterisations. For me to be informed and even politically motivated by a work of fiction I need to be entertained first, as happens with the writing of Stieg Larsson, Matt Beynon Rees or a dozen other writers. This one just left me feeling guilty I had picked it for a book club read.

Other stuff

The book won Japan’s top award for crime fiction in 1997 so clearly other people think very differently about the book than I do. For a far more positive view of the book than my own check out Story Time.

Here’s a written interview with former romance novelist turned award-winning crime writer Natsuo Kirino

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7 Responses to Review: Out by Natsuo Kirino

  1. Maxine says:

    Hmm, your review (excellent) covers some of my concern about this book – which I own owing to it once being part of a £1 offer at Amazon. I’ve read several reviews of it in the past year or two and I’ve never been tipped into actually reading the book. This curious detachment and lack of moral impulse is what puts me off in the first place – but the gore and the length don’t help! (I don’t mind amoral books or those that explore lack of conscience, but I do not like those that simply don’t recognise the issue in the first place – no sense of inner conflict for the reader to relate to and become engaged in.) Maybe, then, this one will go down to the charity shop on the next run.

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  2. Jovenus says:

    Oh dear, sorry that you did not like this one and had to sit through a long time to finish it.

    Keep watch for Stieg Larsson’s “The girl who kicked the hornet nest”, can’t wait to read it and can’t wait to read your review on the book. Have you make your reservation at the local library or bookstores? it’s on order now.

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  3. bernadetteinoz says:

    I haven’t pre-ordered Hornet’s Nest but am reliably informed that my local bookstore will have a copy put aside for me on Thursday. There are three of us in my office all very keen to read it and we’ve got a long weekend ahead here so I suspect we’ll all be doing a lot of reading 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Sunday Salon 2009-10-04: Fortnight in Review « Reactions to Reading

  5. Laura says:

    Perhaps it is a requirement to understand more of Japanese culture to be able to fully appreciate Kirino’s books. To me, a Japanese Studies student, this author has managed to portray a strong sense of the gender issues and isolation present within Japan, particularly within Real World, which focuses on girls only a few years my junior. The author herself expresses in interviews a greater interest in the human psyche than in crime (in fact, she hates crime novels) and writes what some refer to as whydunnits rather than whodunnits. Admittedly, I was surprised by the lack of mystery in Real World myself, having picked up the book with the same expectations of the reviewer,and I appreciate that from the perspective of a crime novel-lover looking for a crime book, Kirino’s work is bound to be a dsappointment. If you’re looking for an insight into the cracks of Japanese society and the alienation and discriminations they produce, then she’s the author for you. From that perspective, I personally have thoroughly enjoyed her works.

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  6. kathy durkin says:

    I thought that the aspects of this book which show the alienation and isolation of the women characters were good, especially the descriptions of their assembly-line jobs which were so degrading and dehumanizing. Then, the backstories about their difficult personal lives interested me. I did learn some things about Japanese society and the role of women at work and at home, and for many, it is not good.
    Yes, it was bleak. But maybe for many working women, life is bleak. Or for those with tough personal situations, life is bleak without social programs to help them.
    One thing that infuriated me was the ending where a woman character is being assaulted (stabbed) physically and sexually. While she is being stabbed and raped, she feels conflicted by repulsion and desire. What a crock!
    Since when do real women who are endangered of being murdered and who are being violently raped, feel conflicted by sexual feelings? Reality check is needed.
    I felt vindicated when I read that Japanese women’s organizations were critical of this book.

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  7. Perhaps I was a bit tough on this one – not unheard of. Though my approach to fiction is always that I want to be entertained and engaged first and if you want to teach me something about life as well that’s OK but you have to keep me interested in a story or characters otherwise I will get snippy 🙂

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