Natsuo Kirino’s novel tells a story of random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.
The ringleader of this cover-up, Masako Katori, emerges as the emotional heart of Out and as one of the shrewdest, most clear-eyed creations in recent fiction. Masako’s own search for a way out of the straitjacket of a dead-end life leads her, too, to take drastic action.
The complex yet riveting narrative seamlessly combines a convincing glimpse into the grimy world of Japan’s yakuza with a brilliant portrayal of the psychology of a violent crime and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between seasoned detectives and a group of determined but inexperienced criminals. Kirino has mastered a Thelma and Louise kind of graveyard humor than illuminators her stunning evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds and the friendship that bolsters them in the aftermath.
It took me about three months to read this novel. For those who know my reading habits, you will be aware that I read fast. Inordinately fast, I am told. The reader for my lagging pace where this book is concerned was not because it was so bad I couldn’t make myself read it, it was because the novel was a bit too realistic, it sucked me in a bit too deeply – enough anyway that I had to put it down, recover and then resume reading. So from the synopsis you will know that four women work the nightshift in a bento factory (bento = lunchboxes). One of them kills her husband and another steps up to help her get rid of the body.
Kirino has this particular ability to create relationships between women that are at once simple and profoundly complex. Masako, the so-called ringleader of this quartet of murderers, is a very complicated character. Actually, all of them are but Masako, perhaps, is more complex than any others, maybe because we spend the most time with her as readers. She has no obvious reason for helping Yayoi, who murders her husband after he throws away their savings on gambling and women. The other two women have financial reasons to help Masako get rid of the husband but Masako does not. That in particular is one of the most interesting part.
When the three women (Yayoi is told not to help so she can maintain her alibi) are cutting up the dead husband – those scenes are graphic and written with enough detail that they will pluck you out of your comfortable life and toss you into the wet and cold bathroom, with the tiles beneath your bare feet, the smell of blood in the air and a cut up corpse in front of your eyes. You will hear the wet sliding of the meat that was a man and you will smell the contents of his intestines. It is incredibly vivid and I had to stop reading for a long while.
The novel goes into the human psyche, the depravities humans are capable of and the dark desires that cannot find verbal expressions but more often than not are expressed in actions. There is Satake, the casino owner who is accused of killing the husband because of prior records which include murder of a woman – he swears revenge on these women, Masako in particular and the story takes another turn. If you go into this expecting a neat little resolution, you will be disappointed. It takes a labyrinthine approach to the ending, there is no neatness, no overtly moralistic tone that denounces murder, no punishment, nothing of that matter. This is a study of the human character and psyche but it is not all doom and gloom. It is incredibly profound. I thought I would despise the end and to an extent, it did leave me perplexed but it left me thinking, wondering…and the best books often do. Do I recommend this? I don’t know. You have to have certain tastes to read this and not many people I know do.