Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder
Originally published in 1997 as Out アウト
English translation first published in 2003
This mesmerizing novel tells the story of a brutal murder in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works the night shift making boxed lunches strangles her abusive husband and then seeks the help of her coworkers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The coolly intelligent Masako emerges as the plot’s ringleader, but quickly discovers that this killing is merely the beginning, as it leads to a terrifying foray into the violent underbelly of Japanese society.
At once a masterpiece of literary suspense and pitch-black comedy of gender warfare, Out is also a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.
Out introduces us to a group of four women who work the night shifts at a boxed lunch factory: Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko and Yayoi. These women are not exactly friends but they do rely upon each other, sharing troubles as they work. Masako notices that Yayoi is badly bruised and she reveals that her husband had beat her the previous night during a fight in which he revealed that he had spent all their savings gambling and in a failed pursuit to cheat on her.
The next night, shortly before work, Yayoi calls Masako to ask for her help. When she arrives she learns that Yayoi had impulsively killed her husband and asks her advice. Masako, who is quite unflappable, quickly decides on a plan where they will all go to work and she will dispose of the body the next day while Yayoi returns home to establish an alibi. During that night’s shift Masako ends up asking for Yoshie’s help, calling in a favor to do so, and the pair set about carving up the corpse. Unfortunately the irresponsible Kuniko also stops by while they are at work, seeking a loan, and sees enough of what is happening that they have to include her in the scheme.
From this opening we are clearly in inverted crime territory. We witness the murder, so we know exactly what happened, and we see what the women are planning to do to hide their involvement. The question, at least in this first part of the novel, is whether they have made any mistakes and whether the police will be able to see through what happened.
The circumstances surrounding the murder are such that the reader may find themselves feeling some degree of empathy for Yayoi. Not only has she been betrayed financially as her husband has spent all of her savings pursuing another woman, she has also been bullied and badly beaten. It is certainly clear that her husband is a pretty despicable figure and will likely intend her harm again if she stays in the marriage yet the murder does not happen in self-defense and it seems that she does have other options open to her such as escaping to return to her parents. Clearly she has commited a crime and so we may question what justice should look like.
Though the situation Yayoi and her colleagues wind up in is quite compelling, I did have some doubts regarding the method used to murder her husband. This is portrayed as a sudden and impulsive act but I am not sure that strangulation with a belt that is being worn is something that someone would spontaneously think to do (it’s easier if she was holding it or it was nearby). That said, it does make sense of how she manages to overpower and murder her husband.
While I have some issues with the moment in which the murder is committed, I think Kirino does an excellent job of creating believable reasons for each of the other women to get involved at help her. Each character has their own reasons and they are quite varied, each reflecting that character and the circumstances they are in. Masako is the most ambiguous of the group but by the end I feel the reader will have a clear idea of who that character is and why they get involved, even if the book never directly has the character state that reason.
Each of the group feel credible, in part because of the detail we are given about their lives. From Kuniko, who is drowning in credit card and loan shark debt, to Masako, whose relationship with her husband is impersonal and whose son hasn’t spoken for a year after being expelled from school, to Yoshie, who is caring for an invalid and children who treat her badly, each member of the group feels richly drawn and real. More importantly, several of them change as they respond to the events they have experienced, contributing to tensions later in the book.
In addition to following the actions of the women from the boxed lunch factory, we also follow several other characters in the story. These include a yakuza type who runs the gambling establishment Yayoi’s husband frequented, Anna – the Chinese immigrant who managed that club, a money lender named Jumonji and a Brazilian-Japanese employee at the factory named Kazuo. Some of these characters initially seem quite peripheral to the main story though most eventually cross over and have an impact, in several cases pushing that main story in a different and unexpected direction.
Following the chapters detailing the crime and the efforts made to hide the body we then follow as the police investigation the crime. During this sequence we remain focused on the women and the tensions building within the group but we also get to share in the detective’s guesses about what happened. As with many stories of the inverted type, the reader may well have detected vulnerabilities in the suspects’ stories and part of the tension during this section comes from seeing whether they can correctly interpret the evidence.
Out is certainly an inverted crime story but it also could be said to fit into several other traditions or sub-genres within crime fiction. It has some moments of grotesque horror, not just those sequences in which we observe the carving apart of a corpse (which is less gruesomely described than you would expect, though enough that it may make sensitive readers queasy) but also the extremely graphic descriptions of a combined rape and murder that are enough to give you nightmares. It also has some elements I might consider noir – certainly there is no happiness here for any of the characters and little hope for the future, either for them or for society more generally.
There is quite a lot of discussion of the roles and economic expectations of men and women in society. Some of this is explicit, such as when the detective investigating the murder queries why the women would have chosen to work night shifts, but it can also be inferred in much of the plotting and character development. Each of these characters are living close to the edge and their economic choices are clearly limited although the reasons for that differ between the characters. We also see how economic realities are trapping these women and limiting other choices for them.
Strangley the writer who most came to mind as a comparison when I was reading this was Jim Thompson because of the book’s tone and themes. Here we have a group of characters who are in effect losers – characters on the edge of losing everything – who enact a dangerous plan to survive. This book tracks the inevitable collapse of their friendships as they find themselves out of control, turn upon each other and risk destruction. We even have a depiction of brutal malevolence in Satake, our gambling club owner who proves every bit as disturbing a figure as a Lou Ford or Nick Corey.
As the book nears its conclusion, the action and suspense elements increasingly dominate. We know that everything risks collapsing around the characters but it is uncertain how each will be affected. In the end each character’s fate feels pretty appropriate and while I feel that there is a little padding in those final chapters, the tension that the situation generates and the feeling that anything might happen kept me turning the pages to the end.
Which brings me to the point where I have to try and summarize how I feel about this book – an unusually difficult task in this case because I feel rather conflicted. The crime itself is not especially clever – indeed I might suggest that it is fairly mundane. What makes it horrifying and compelling is the exploration of the way it affects these women, both materially and emotionally, and the choices they make to try and survive.
Ultimately it is the novel’s characters that will stick with me most, far more than the premise of this story. I spent 400 pages feeling like I was growing to understand them and the decisions they take. At times that can be a frustrating experience – often we see their mistakes coming – but I think it is always an interesting one.
The Verdict: A dark and gruesome crime story with rich, dimensional characters.
I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.