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Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out - Natsuo Kirino, Stephen Snyder

A unique and gripping novel that would have been a very solid 4 stars had it not fallen apart in a repulsive way at the end.

Out has been called a mystery and a thriller, but it isn’t really either (and I’m glad, as I don’t read those genres): we know all along who the murderer is, and the protagonists are rarely in immediate danger. It’s more of a psychological thriller or literary suspense novel, centering on four women who work the night shift at a boxed-lunch factory in Tokyo. Yayoi’s husband has gambled away their savings in pursuit of another woman and started hitting her.... so one night she strangles him, then calls her steely friend Masako to help dispose of the body. That’s the beginning of the suspenseful plot: how far is Masako willing to go? Will Yayoi be able to keep it together long enough to evade the detectives? Will the sleazy casino owner last seen beating up the husband be falsely convicted of the crime, and do we want him to be? This is not a novel that follows normal patterns of plot or characterization, which is a large part of what makes it so compelling.

It is a novel with very strong characterization, though: no generic types here; everyone is vivid and three-dimensional. And it’s only in part a plot-driven novel. It’s also an atmospheric one with a strong sense of place, and one that engages with an entire society rather than just the character’s lives, touching on social problems from materialism and credit card debt to sex discrimination in the workplace to insularity and poor treatment of immigrants. Not in the sense that it’s trying to send a message, but in the sense that the characters’ lives are messy and complicated and a product of the time and place in which they live.

Kirino writes in Japanese, but rarely is it evident that this is a translation; the writing flows smoothly with only a few hiccups in the dialogue (and contemporary dialogue is probably the hardest thing to translate). Aside from some explanations of personalities that we’ve already been shown, the writing is strong, with the right amount of detail to bring the settings and characters to life without bogging down the story.

Unfortunately, toward the end the book took a turn that killed my enjoyment (possible SPOILERS, but I wish I had known this in advance). It goes from the crime-and-punishment story that most interested me into a creepy stalker revenge tale, and then veers into torture porn, and a character gets raped until she likes it, and, well, WTF? This is meant to be a disturbing book, but we all have our limits and it exceeded mine.

So this is not a book I would recommend lightly. It has strong characterization and an enthralling plot, as well as a detailed and disconcerting look at modern Japanese society. But it can also be sickening, especially toward the end. You might like it; just know what you’re getting into.