In the Tokyo suburbs four women work the draining graveyard shift at a boxed-lunch factory. Burdened with chores and heavy debts and isolated from husbands and children, they all secretly dream of a way out of their dead-end lives.
A young mother among them finally cracks and strangles her philandering, gambling husband then confesses her crime to Masako, the closest of her colleagues. For reasons of her own, Masako agrees to assist her friend and seeks the help of the other co-workers to dismember and dispose of the body. The body parts are discovered, the police start asking questions, but the women have far more dangerous enemies -a yakuza connected loan shark who discovers their secret and has a business proposition, and a ruthless nightclub owner the police are convinced is guilty of the murder. He has lost everything as a result of their crime and he is out for revenge.
Let me preface this review by saying that Natsuo Kirino’s Out is not a book for the fainthearted. To sum it up in a single sentence, it’s dark and it’s bleak, and it’s stomach-churningly graphic in places. I’m not much of a thriller reader, but I kept finding myself the object of the cover model’s cold stare whenever I was scrolling through bookstagram or looking at Goodreads, so I decided to give it a go.
One of the things that I liked the most about Out is the fact that it’s not just your run-of-the-mill thriller; it’s also a social commentary. It tears the lid off Japanese society, exposing the mistreatment of the underclass and the misogyny woven into the fabric of everyday life. One of the book’s main characters, Masako, starts her working life as an ambitious young woman, but as the years pass, the misogyny running rampant throughout her company rises up around her, forming a cage and trapping her in her entry level position, allowing the men she started at the company with to climb the professional ladder towards better paid roles. When she rightly requests more responsibilities and a wage that reflects her experience and skill, she’s branded as unreasonable and is essentially driven out of the company. Then there’s Kuniko, a young woman drowning in credit card debt. She’s not conventionally attractive and because of this, she’s unable to find a job that will pay her a decent wage. In short, she’s unable to find work in a customer-facing role because employers believe that it’s a woman’s apparent beauty that reels the customers in. In a desperate bid to meet these warped expectations, she applies for credit card after credit card, using the borrowed money to buy expensive clothes and makeup in the hopes that it will all make her ‘pretty’ enough for these jobs. Some people reading the book might think Kuniko’s situation is exaggerated for the sake of the story, but it isn’t. While living in Japan, I worked for a company that had English schools the length and breadth of the country. One of my colleagues told me about a school she’d worked for where the manager would literally send women home if they dared show up for work without any makeup on. What’s even worse is that the manager was a woman herself.
Out is a novel about these women taking back their power. Their actions are repugnant, but given what they’ve been subjected to, readers will feel oddly empathetic towards them. None of the women are particularly likeable, but they’re relatable to varying degrees. Yayoi kills her husband and while most of us can agree that ending another person’s life is wrong in the majority of circumstances, you can almost understand the frustration and desperation that drives her to commit such an act. She’s physically abused by her husband and the icing on the cake is finding out that he’s frittered away the entirety of their hard-earned savings on gambling and hostesses. Yoshie, one of the women who helps dispose of the body, is utterly repulsed at the thought of being an accessory to a crime, but being a single, widowed mother, she’s desperate for the money that’s on offer, money that will quite literally change her life. Readers may well turn up their nose and claim that they wouldn’t do something so grisly, regardless of the money they’re being offered, but does anyone truly know what they would do if they found themselves in a position as desperate and dire as Yoshie’s?
For most the book, I felt that it was definitely going to be a five star read, but the ending caught me completely off guard. I won’t go into too much detail, but it’s a horrifically drawn out and gratuitous rape and torture scene and I hate, hate, hate how Natsuo Kirino makes the character being subjected to the attack feel a warped empathy towards the perpetrator. This single scene has knocked an entire star off my rating.
Have you read Out or any of Natsuo Kirino’s other books? Let me know in the comments.