Book Review: “Out” by Natsuo Kirino

8/10 Well-written and enjoyable despite some minor flaws.

Four women struggle to make ends meet while working the night shift at a lunchbox factory. Their already desperate reality is thrown into the dark world of crime when one of them murders her husband and turns to the other three to help cover it up. The ripples of their actions cascade into many other lives, destroying some in the process, but not all of these victims will take it lying down.

Full warning, this book is gruesome and violent. Along with detailed passages of murder and cutting up bodies, there are a couple of extremely violent rape scenes. This book is not for the faint of heart.

Natsuo Kirino has a thing for miserable characters in desperate life situations, already at the end of their rope when events force them to make terrible, life-altering decisions. This is a central theme of Out: desperation leads to bad decisions made in the heat of the moment, and the results never payout. Most of the story centers on the four women that work at the factory. But we slowly spiral out to other characters, all seedy and desperate characters just looking to get by in the world, regardless of who they take advantage of to do it. It’s a bleak story crammed with cynicism, propped up by the characters’ internal thoughts rationalizing their world views and actions. There are no heroes here. And everyone gets backstory; lots of it. However, over the course of the story, I found that there were perhaps too many characters, some of which had little real influence over the events and probably could have stayed as minor characters without chapters and backstories of their own. Their inclusion slows the pacing around the middle as we jump from POV to POV, getting new characters late into the story that need yet more backstory. As a result, I didn’t find that all the subplots had a proper conclusion; some just peter out.

It’s difficult to discuss the writing. I have no clue if the translation by Stephen Snyder is truly accurate or if it was adapted any for a Western market. I’ve read enough Japanese works to appreciate that there are some distinct differences between common writing styles in Japan compared to the West. One aspect of Japanese style features heavily here, that being heavy emotional narration. In real life, the Japanese can be reserved with their emotions, in particular anger and sadness, as society considers them to be a burden on other people. These emotions are amplified in the internal monologues of the characters as they (often) ruminate on their misery. For some readers, the constant internal thoughts in the narration may be too slow and heavy-handed. But if you’re accustomed to it (perhaps you’ve read Stephen King), you’ll find great depth to the characters explored in these segments. I will say though, at the very end, a character comes to a rather strange realization that I didn’t connect with; the character’s reasoning felt lacking, so the emotional climax was lacking for me. Again, I don’t know if something was lost in translation or if that was what Natsuo Kirino intended.

The dreary and heavy atmosphere that hangs over every page combined with the violent and gruesome nature of the story blurs the lines between thriller and horror. It’s a damned dark book. If you can make it past that, the characters are rich, the world feels real, and it’s engaging all the way through.

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