Last year, the estimable yesknopemaybe reviewed this book and found it arduous and almost iredeemable. But her summary of the book left me fairly curious, especially after reading The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino last year, which sounded vaguely similar. Her comparing it to Crime & Punishment didn’t hurt, considering that’s one of my favorite books.
So, given what I expected based on her review, I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised for nine-tenths of the book. Though I did find it grim, even unsettling, I also found it poignant and possibly the angriest book that I’ve read since The Handmaid’s Tale.
Set in mid-90s Japan, while the country was in the midst of its “lost decade”, Out is about four women working the night shift packaging bento boxes. It’s hard work,and the pay is little recompense. The women are clearly defined, all constructed to represent different kinds of women.
Masako is the clear leader of the group. She’s strong, decisive, and cold. She was career driven until she was beaten down by the patriarchal system, and now lives a life disenchanted by her past and out of touch with her family.
Kuniko is vain, petty, and unattractive. Incapable of delaying gratification, she has run massive amounts of debt.
Yoshie is caring, hard working, and dutiful. She is a single mother and takes care of her mother-in-law,who is virtually helpless. Though money is a concern for everyone in the group, Yoshie is the poorest.
Yayoi is the youngest, and by far the prettiest. She is also largely helpless and subservient to her abusive and irresponsible husband.
There is an unmistakable theme, throughout the novel, of disaffected women being held down by the system. Of being abused and neglected by men, and of being burdened by the cultural expectations placed upon them by repressive, anachronistic mores.
The role of women in modern Japanese society is something Kirino has spoken of in numerous interviews. That all The characters in this book are over The age of 30 is, I think, not an accident. They aren’t young, they have no prospects, and (with the exception of Yayoi) are not beautiful. This book is a clear indictment of how Japanese society treats women.
Which makes The response to this novel, and her writing, more generally, fairly unsurpring. Women were generally expected to write romance novels when Kirino wrote this, and she, in fact, got her start writing those kinds of books. She received considerable backlash for writing not just a crime thriller, but a violent one that sees a housewife killing her husband elicited a strong response.
The plot is very simple: Yoshie murders her husband, and the other three women (with varying degrees of success and willingness) help her dispose of the body and cover up the murder by chopping it up and dispersing the body around the city.
So I thought this was going to be about female empowerment. About how four very different women would respond to this act, and whether it would spur them to break the shackles of the oppressive culture in which they live. And, for most of the novel, that’s precisely what it was. The women weren’t a monolithic expression of rage, and they didn’t all persevere and overcome, but they all grew and evolved into more empowered versions of themselves.
Poverty and racism were also important themes, here. Kazuo is perhaps the only sympathetic male character (which isn’t saying much, trust me), and he is a Brazilian immigrant with mixed race heritage. He is ostracized by Japanese society, and deeply longs for the home he left behind. He is an unwelcome member of society because he looks different than most Japanese.
With the exception of Masako, all the female characters are struggling financially, and this is one of the driving forces that drives them to help in the cover-up.
And, overall, this is a fairly taught thriller. I felt real sympathy for some of the characters, and wanted them to succeed in the end.
But……holy shit does this book take a nose dive at the end. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that reneged on all its promise as quickly and surely as this one did. Hell, I’d read about 90% of the book and was looking at other books written by Kirino that I could read next. And while I’m still interested in reading more of her stuff, the ending of this book makes me wonder whether I should bother.
It’s unbelievable how quickly my appreciation was fizzled into confused. Once it starts to unravel, the whole thing blows up, the debris is set on fire, and the ashes are shot into the sun. Then the sun is extinguished, along with all life. Then, for good measure, the universe itself is crunched back into a singularity, which itself is set on fire.
Jesus Christ I hated the end of this book.
The question here is whether the end ruins everything that came before, or whether the vast majority of the book can redeem an ending that possibly contradicts the books premise.
I don’t know. But if you read this book, just stop before the end. That’s my advice.