‘Out’ by Natsuo Kirino is a provocative, disturbing and highly intelligent psychological thriller. Written by a female author, the novel is a sensitive exploration of the difficulties faced via 4 quite different women who all work the night shift at a boxed lunch factory. When beautiful Yayoi murders her philandering husband, she goes to sensible Masoko for help who then enlists 2 other friends to help deal with the problem of the body. Eventually, they decide it must be cut up and thrown away.
Initially, these appear to be ordinary women dealing with an extraordinary situation, but the novel subtly explores what happens once that something you should never do is out and unlocked. In various ways, the emotional threshold for what they have done becomes eroded, and re-realised in curious ways.
On the one hand, I could see how this novel considers the opportunities available to women in Japan, as well as men, as a response to their particular society, and the roles demanded of them. All are in various stages of discontent, governed by cultural expectations of what they should be or should have. Or of longings that remain painfully unfulfilled. For Kuniko, it’s the debt she gets into to fill the void of her life. For Jumonji, a loan-shark and erstwhile yakuza, it’s high school girls that he realises don’t appeal in the same way as older woman, Masako. For Kazuo, a homesick half-Japanese Brazilian who lurks in the factory shadows to feel up unsuspecting women, it’s the absence of love. When we’re given his POV, he becomes a strangely redeemable figure, who is achingly lonely and isolated.
The novel has a devastating arc, in which characters that you don’t think are initially important, become crucial. Satake, a casino-owner provides the threat. Having raped and murdered a woman years ago, and ‘sharing her death’, believing her also to have loved him in this moment, he realises he can never be this close to anyone again. He locks himself away from women and builds a mini empire from the ground up. The detail, and strange beauty, with which this is described is extremely unsettling. When he becomes a suspect for Yayoi’s husband’s murder, he loses his reputation, his past is out, and so is the instinct and anger that he has subsumed all these years.
He wants revenge and starts to track Masako, who he sees as (and who is) the mastermind of the whole affair. But she isn’t frightened that easily and begins to fight back, which makes him want her all the more. The only part of this novel that wasn’t compelling, perhaps because it felt so extreme, was the suggestion that Masako was coming to love, or at least be fascinated by, her pursuer. She forgives him and expresses a desire to run away with him. Whether this is truly meant or not is uncertain, but I did start to feel overly uncomfortable with this idea. Pleasure and pain is a much-discussed concept, but does that mean you come to love everybody who has hurt you, purely because they push you to such an unusual sense of being.
I might be reading that incorrectly, I have a suspicion that this notion is purely a suggestion, a way for Kirino to question how the operation of society constructs its inhabitants. The ever-increasing pressure it increases until people crack. Occasionally, the portrayal of the characters we are supposed to dislike seems somewhat heavy-handed but these two things are the novels only flaws. It’s the type of book, with a level of insight and sophisticated telling, that I’d aspire to write.