Book Review: "Out" by Natsuo Kirino

The best mysteries are those that reflect deep psychological and social tensions, and have a higher agenda. In fact, without these resonating elements, a mystery novel can so easily become just a shallow and superficial mechanism. Luckily, Natsuo Kirino's Out, now translated into English, is full of deep, dark resonances and - along the way of a thrilling and engrossing read - makes some profound points about Japanese society.

The novel opens the door on the lives some ordinary women, working part time on the night shift at a lunch-box processing plant, a dead end job that only emphasizes the domestic drudgery of the protagonists, and can be see as a symbol of the frustration and subjugation of higher female aspirations.

Though their backgrounds and situations differ, the four women share a vague but potent desire to escape the confines of their daily lives. Out of this apparently humdrum situation, Kirino creates a real page turner, as one of the women is driven to murder her husband, and her colleagues decide to rally round.

Turning their job to their advantage, the women work together to cut the body up into small pieces and dispose of it. From that moment on, their lives begin spinning out of control, either towards destruction or liberation.

With majestic prose and artistic descriptions, Kirino creates an exquisite level of anxiety and fear in our minds. She deals expertly with the motives that got the women involved in such a heinous crime, and maintains the suspense about what will happen next with unpredictable plot developments that make the reader want to finish the entire story in one sitting.

The characters deal with issues that are of real importance in contemporary Japan - domestic violence, the care of the elderly, the consumeristic allure of famous brands, and the silently impaired family ties that result in stolid apathy.

While the women in the novel wish to break their chains, there is no easy escape, and they have to tough it out, day by day, like so many people in Japan, caught on a complex web of obligations and expectations. It is these resonating factors that give "Out" its unique darkness and make it a Japanese mystery novel of the highest quality.

Tokyo Journal
July, 2004

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