Saturday, August 16, 2008
Four Japanese housewives work the grueling graveyard shift at a lunchbox factory in order to scrape by. Each one is on the edge for her own reasons: Yoshie, a middle-aged widow, lost her husband's income when he died, but didn't lose the responsibility of caring for his bed-ridden mother or their two irresponsible daughters; Kuniko, a childless 33-year-old with a taste for designer goods, is up to her neck in credit card debt; Masako, a 42-year-old mother of 1, was displaced from her job at a credit bureau after 20 years of loyal service when she pointed out to her bosses that she hadn't been promoted or given raises while all her male associates had, and now lives in a lonely spiral of alienation and depression. Yayoi, the prettiest of the four, is the one who drives them all into a state of desperation when, in a fit of rage, she strangles her gambling, cheating husband to death. Suddenly, the four women, colleagues and (after a fashion) friends, have a body on their hands. Naturally, the situation isn't as simple as it looks, and the complications begin to tear down the women's lives as they know them.
The premise of OUT is an interesting one, and one Kirino has rendered through disturbingly human lenses. It is discomfiting to read about the hardships and stupidity of the four women's lives, and to follow the practical logic that leads them through the urban underworld. While there is some intensely graphic detail, Kirino also has some sophisticated observations and insights to offer, and the book is rather more than a gory fluff-piece. The originality and page-turnability have been duly recognized; OUT was the winner of a number of crime fiction prizes, including the Japanese Grand Prix. It was also an Edgar Award finalist.
The biggest setback in treating OUT as a successful crime novel is, unfortunately, the language in which it was originally written. Japanese fiction is almost never rendered into natural-sounding English, and there are times when the English text of OUT comes off as dawdling or overly-literal. Stephen Snyder, who translated, has done a commendable job with a difficult task, but at 400 pages the book is a little too long and struggles to keep the tension in some places. But with some judicial skimming, this book is an absorbing read.