Out, by Natsuo Kirini
Grim. That’s the one word that comes to mind when reading Natsuo Kirini’s book “Out”. The second word is one used by my colleague to describe the writer: relentless. So why, then, would you recommend this grim, relentless crime novel? For me, it was the sheer fascination of being drawn into the world Kirini creates. Her story is set in Japan, but to this American reader the environment seems more akin to a gloomy Soviet town. Masako, a main character, works night shifts in a sterile and backbreaking boxed-lunch factory, and goes home to a husband and adolescent son who have walled themselves in with silence. Masako’s situation is common amongst the book’s characters—her fellow female night-shift workers who find themselves cut off from their families and society by more than their schedules, a Brazilian of Japanese descent who works at the factory and longs for home, and a small-time crime boss whose internal life remains fixated a horrific crime he committed years ago.
The greatest achievement of Kirini’s writing is getting us to sympathize with and even root for the most sinister characters in the book. There is no hero. The police investigating the crimes in the book are peripheral and have little depth. Throughout the book, I found myself caring most about the two people who have committed the most calculating and heinous crimes, and who showed the least compassion for everyone else embroiled in this situation.
For Masako and the three other women who work at the boxed-lunch factory, their lives are hemmed in by hopelessness and a lack of connection with others. Even when they join together to cover up a crime, their solidarity devolves into suspicion and contempt, complicated by their differing reactions to the unfolding events and the web of money that links their actions. Each woman has arrived at this juncture because of the circumstances in her life—marrying a man who seems charming but grows cold and contemptuous and gambles away their money; striving for a career that tests the limits of expectations of Japanese working women; caring for a bedridden, critical and whiny mother-in-law; taking out loan after loan until her life breaks under the weight of the interest; having the bad luck to be born without a pretty face and the opportunities it provides in Japanese society. I don’t believe Kirini’s sole intent was to criticize the roles of women in Japan, but it is an integral part of this story
The feeling that I emerged with—and believe me, finishing the book feels like climbing out of a deathly silent, algae-filled well—was relief. Relief that my life is ok, that I have more options than the women in the book. When the women commit and cover up crimes, my first thought as a reader is not of disgust, but rather “Finally! That one really deserved it!” It’s a strange and unsettling feeling to have, especially since that reaction comes not only from justifiable crimes, but also from cold-blooded murders. The only way that the characters—male and female—in “Out” can reach the freedom they crave is by destroying the lives that they currently have. Reading “Out” makes me relieved that I have other options.