Monday, September 1, 2008


By Natsuo Kirino
published 1997 in Japan, first English language edition 2003
Vintage International
Reviewed by Carl V.

"A gutsy, unflinching foray into the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the human soul...Riveting, hair-raising...definitely not for the faint-of-heart". So says the Minneapolis Star Tribune of Natsuo Kirino's crime fiction novel Out, winner of Japan's Grand Prix for Crime Fiction and Edgar Award Finalist from its 2003 release here in the states. I can personally attest to the fact that this is an accurate description of this page-turner of a novel.

Natsuo Kirino slowly but surely draws you into the oppressive despair of four Japanese women, workers on a night-shift factory line, and by the time she lets you go you feel that you've been shaken by the scruff of the neck like an unfortunate cat in the jaws of a rabid dog. Out is an exhausting, unnerving novel that not only works as commentary on the social status of a number of women in Japanese society but also works as a first-rate, dark and grimy crime novel, a testament to the depths man, or woman, can sink to.

I have only recently ventured into the world of Japanese fiction thanks to the encouragement of a local friend as well as online friends who turned me on to the works of Huraki Murakami. In perusing fellow book blogger's reading lists I noticed several mentions of the novel, Out, and the eye-catching cover design alone had me longing to give this book a try. I am so glad I did. I picked it up and in essence read the first 200 pages in one (very busy) day and then finished the final 200 pages, without stopping, on Monday morning as I celebrated Labor Day. I am not exaggerating when I deem Out a "page-turner". It is that and more.

I would be the first to admit that dark, tortuous crime fiction is not my forte. The last time I read a book of this nature was over 10 years ago when I read Stephen Dobyns' novel, The Church of Dead Girls. I felt tangled up inside for days after reading that. I am just not into realistic crime fiction that portrays the more evil nature of man. While Out certainly has that side to it, it is written in such a way that I feel compelled to recommend it despite my qualms. Natsuo Kirino has talent and it shows on every page.

For those of you who have worked an overnight job at some point in your life (I have on a couple of occasions), you know just how much it throws off your internal balance and truly distorts your view of life and the world around you. From my own personal experience, nothing depresses a person more quickly than trying to adjust to a life of overnight work while everyone else around you functions on a more 'normal' schedule. While my past work situations pale in comparison to that of Kirino's female protagonists, she captures the essence of that kind of sleep-deprived despair so well that I literally felt myself transported back to those less-than-ideal days of early employment. It was not that, however, which first made me aware of how good a writer Natsuo Kirino is, though that part was impressive. It was when I realized that I was rooting very strongly for certain characters who were doing very, very bad things, and when I found myself wishing evil on characters who were no more or less guilty than the characters I was rooting for, that I had that "Wow! This woman can really write!" moment. There are no pure and innocent heroes or heroines in Out. Instead there are very real people driven to do very questionable, sometimes deplorable, things based on the circumstances they put themselves in.

I am probably not doing a great job of selling this novel as a must read, but other than one's own personal taste regarding murder and torture, that is exactly what Out is. I cannot say that it is a feel-good novel nor does the character I like the most make all the decisions that I had hoped for as I was reading this novel, but it is gripping and intense, and sometimes very scary. At times I felt very dirty and conflicted about how engrossed I was in this tale. But in my mind, that is the kind of story Natsuo Kirino set out to tell. To feel any other way is to ignore the spirit of the story. It is a book to add to your list if you are looking for something a bit more realistic, more visceral, to satisfy your urges for dark autumnal reading. To say anything specific about the plot would ruin the experience.

Beautiful in its brutality and surprising in the emotions it engenders, Out is a novel that I must confess to enjoying very much. I look forward to exploring more of Natsuo Kirino's work in the future.


Pardon My French said...

Thanks for the review - I love Japanese fiction and am always looking for new, recently-translated authors. I have to be careful to read these kinds of things at the right time, though, because they can be really brutal and tough to handle. Not sure that this autumn is the time for "Out," but I'm going to add it to my 'maybe' list for later, thanks to the RIP reviews.

tanabata said...

It was when I realized that I was rooting very strongly for certain characters who were doing very, very bad things, and when I found myself wishing evil on characters who were no more or less guilty than the characters I was rooting for, that I had that "Wow! This woman can really write!" moment.

That's how I felt too. You know it's a well-told story when you start rooting for the 'bad' guys. Sure it was dark and violent but it was a great read! I also thought the translation read very smoothly.

Bellezza said...

"It was when I realized that I was rooting very strongly for certain characters who were doing very, very bad things, and when I found myself wishing evil on characters who were no more or less guilty than the characters I was rooting for, that I had that "Wow! This woman can really write!" moment."

That is exactly how I felt when I read "The Godfather" for the first time. Here I was, reading a book about Bad Guys, and rooting for them! Mario Puzo gained such esteem in my eyes when I realized I was advocating the mafia solely because of his writing.

I think 98 per cent of the books read in the JLC2 have been on the book "Out". I'm amazed at its popularity, and the way every reviewer says it just seems to grip them. While I am a fan of crime/thrillers, I'm not such a fan of the grotesque; parts of me are a little apprehensive to read what many are calling a shocking end. Yet, I am compelled to read Out just so I can effectively participate in all the discussions, as well as know what everyone's referring to.

Your reviews are so well written, Carl. They are a joy to read.

Iliana said...

Yes! I was rooting for some of the characters who were actually quite guilty of things too.

I had a bit of a different reading experience with this book than you did Carl. I had to take breaks from it (even though yes, it's a page-turner). There were times that it just felt too intense for me and I had to put it aside. Having said that though, I do think it was a fabulous read. Made you think a lot!

Great review!

J.S. Peyton said...

This book has been on my shelf since forever. It's been there so long that sometimes I have to remind myself that I actually have it. I've heard that it's pretty intense. And, while I don't shy away from those kinds of novels, I generally have to psych myself up beforehand or I'll never finish.

But this - your review - has definitely inspired me! I doubt I'll get to it within the next month (too many things on my plate for now), but I am committing to finishing this before the end of the year. Excellent review!

Carl V. said...

JSPeyton: I think you'll enjoy it once you get to it. Make sure you shoot me an email when you review it so that I'm sure to catch it.

Iliana: It is intense, so I can understand you needing to take breaks. For me I was just too drawn in to stop once it got going, despite the intensity. Of course reading most of it outdoors on a beautiful sunny day probably lessened the effect.

Bellezza: I've certainly read a couple of more grotesque, intense books but not many. Again, this isn't my kind of reading normally. But she is definitely a skilled writer. I'd love to talk to you about this after you read it.

Tanabata: I cannot say I know how to judge translations, but it certainly seemed to work.

Pardon: they really can be brutal and I do think timing is everything with a book like this.

marineko said...

I had read this book halfway through a couple of years back, and while I had that "wow! this woman could write!" moment, for some reason i never did finish it. every one of my colleagues and friends who have read it seem to think it as a must-read, too, so i think i'll definitely try to read it all the way through one of these days!

mel said...

purchased "Out" a few days ago and am looking forward to reading it for the Japanese Challenge III-thanks for the good review and also for dropping by my new blog