Formidable Japanese crime novelist Natsuo Kirino’s latest psychological thriller, “Grotesque,” is a beast of a book. Through almost 500 insanely detailed pages, with a loquacious narrator obsessed with her beautiful younger sister, Kirino explores the disconcerting world of two murdered prostitutes. Despite the story’s dark tenor, the narrative charges forward with haunting leisure, seducing with access to the sordid underbelly of traditional Japanese life.
Her imagined world is graphically real, and she gives Murakami a run for his money, though everyone in the book is in one way or another a monster.
Since my reviews are no longer up on the Miami Herald site nor the Honolulu Advertiser, I’ve included it here.
A Look at Japan’s Darker Side
By Natsuo Kirino
Translated by Rebecca Copeland
KNOPF; 464 pages; $24.95
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
3/11/07 in the Honolulu Advertiser
4/3/07 in the Miami Herald
Lauded Japanese crime novelist Natsuo Kirino’s latest psychological thriller is a beast of a book. Through nearly 500 insanely detailed pages and a loquacious main narrator obsessed with her beautiful younger sister, Kirino explores the disconcerting world of two murdered prostitutes. Despite the story’s dark tenor, the narrative charges forward with haunting leisure, seducing with access to the sordid underbelly of traditional Japanese life.
Though it has all the makings of a gripping mystery, the who and what are actually divulged right away: Zhang, an illegal Chinese National, is accused of in one year murdering two prostitutes, Yuriko Hirata and Kazue Sato, in one year.
Tokyo is abuzz about the deaths because surprisingly, both were graduates of the elite Q School for Young Women, but Kazue’s is most stunning simply because she was also career woman by day.
Yet for Yuriko’s unnamed sister, it’s Yuriko who remains the cynosure of her world. And though Kirino decants the story through four voices that entreat with the intimacy of confession—Yuriko’s and Kazue’s diaries, Zhang’s court statement, and the sister’s nervous, conversational recounting—it’s her narrative to which we repeatedly return, and she who provides our first introduction to the murders and the truth.
But Kirino ensures there’s no perspective we can trust, not because the narrators are unreliable but because everyone’s truth is inherently defective. Harkening to Kurosawa’s 1950s film “Rashoman,” each narrative instead presents conflicting testimony, and through this we must reconstruct the past.
“It’s something of a one-sided story,” the sister admits of her own narrative, even cautioning that the substance of Yuriko’s diary is marred because she has rewritten parts.
The story begins 27 years earlier, when she and Yuriko were precocious kids and her malicious fixation with Yuriko was beginning to deepen. She protests too much that she never loved her, and lives as if she is the negative image of doll-like Yuriko, who face is “diabolically beautiful” and at once repels and attracts others. When her family moves back to Switzerland, she tries to escape Yuriko by remaining in Japan and entering Q School, only to be confronted there with a new, larger fiend. The book rests for a while in this catty world of Q insiders and outsiders, immersing us in a microcosm of the Japanese class system, a place where Kazue embroiders Ralph Lauren logos on her socks in a desperate attempt to belong, and where girls often treat each other according to their father’s positions.
In the school and the novel, everyone’s a monster. Yuriko and her sister start out this way because they are hapa, but continue because the sister’s “talent was the uncompromising ability to feel spite,” while Yuriko is a genetic mutation, “more an effigy than a human being.” Their grandfather is a con man, Yuriko’s pimp is homosexual and labeled a monster, Zhang is a murderer who is also in love with his sister, the men who prey on Yuriko are deviants and pedophiles, the school is a haven for bullying, and society is the ultimate cult of monstrosity.
While Yuriko contends “it’s men who made us into monsters,” Kirino indicts the larger society, equating it with mind control. We all have demons within us, but in this world where appearance controls all, the consequences of oppression are particularly damaging.
In recent years Japan has seen increasing violent crime by women and youths, signs of the continuing collapse of its traditional system. It is a society defined by men, and as the water that feeds the water trade, in this book men alone are the source of each woman’s decay.