Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

23 October, 2009

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Groteque by Natsuo Kirino is my 8th (wow, I didn’t realise how many I’ve read!) and final book for Carl’s RIP IV Challenge and the 4th for Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge 3. You can probably tell that my main bookish interest is mysteries. RIV IV Challenge ends on Halloween so this will be my final review for it. The Japanese Literary Challenge 3 continues until January 30th 2010 so I’m hoping to read heaps more including The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki which has been sitting in my TBR pile for donkey’s years.

*I have belatedly decided to join the Hello Japan October challenge hosted by Tanabata at In Spring it is the Dawn as I realised this book would be perfect for it and that I can’t really stay away from anything Japanese. Tanabata has an incredible list of Japanese books she’s read, reading and reviewing, so go and check it out!

Where to begin? I was really looking forward to reading Grotesque after enjoying Kirino’s Out several years ago. To me, Out was a fresh take on the murder mystery genre in which the lead character is a middle-aged housewife. The novel tackled issues of alienation, poverty, immigration and the breakdown of social arrangements in contemporary Japan without any preaching. I was impressed with Kirino’s clean and clear style. And there was an undercurrent of uneasiness, reminiscent of Susan Hill’s crime novels, which added that extra edge. It was shocking, disturbing and very good. I’m not such a huge fan of horror (ok, I’m a wimp and I don’t read any horror) and love my cozies, but I do appreciate a good, dark thriller.

Grotesque begins with the discovery of a dead Kazue Sato, an employee of a prestigious architectural and engineering firm in Tokyo who was moonlighting as a part-time prostitute. A Chinese illegal immigrant named Zhang has been arrested for her death, and also for the murder of another prostitute Yuriko Hirata found under very similar circumstances a few months previously. The first part of the book is narrated by Yuriko’s sister who was also Kazue’s high school classmate. The novel is split into sections narrated first by Yuriko’s sister who sets the background to this tale, from their mixed heritage, of Yuriko’s ‘monstrous’ beauty and the prestigious Q high school in which they enroll and meet Kazue where no matter how hard you try you can never quite join the elite cliques and wash off the stench of poverty. We are then given Zhang’s trial notes and Yuriko and Kazue’s journals as we slowly realise that things are never quite as straightforward as they seem, and narrators are not always reliable.

Compared to Out, Grotesque was something else altogether. Definitely darker, more disturbing and left me very, very uneasy. Because you know that there are areas of Japanese modern life in which reality is exactly how Kirino describes it. Although I couldn’t stop reading the novel, it wasn’t exactly comfortable reading. Kirino’s outlook is bleak, and her characters flawed and ugly. I admire her for articulating the darkest monstrous aspects of humanity in normal people, but after finishing the book I really felt I needed something light and happy to read, and a cleansing shower. Don’t get me wrong, the issues brought up in the book, especially prostitution, is heavy, but Kirino’s writing (and the superb translation) flows easily. It’s just that I didn’t like any of the characters. But then, I don’t think Kirino intends you to like them. She gives you a sharp slice of unhappiness and reminds you that there are many people out there who are not as fortunate as some of us.

I did like the book and was really impressed with her style and the way she totally inhabits her characters, who are layered and have depth. It’s not an easy read, but I recommend it. Just don’t read it when you are feeling down.

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20 Responses to “Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino”

  1. Mel U Says:

    I saw you have in your tbr pile The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki -I am currently reading the same author’s “The Secret History of Lord Musashi”-it is a completely fascinating story about sexual obsession in 16th century Japan-it was written in 1935 but is not dated at all-I have “Out” in my own Japanese TBR pile-

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hi Mel, I haven’t read ‘The Secret History of Lord Musashi’ but have seen it. Sounds fascinating. Is it about the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi? I’ve also got Tanizaki’s ‘In Praise of Shadows’ to read as well, but I think it’s more an essay or meditation on aesthetic than fiction. Aaaarg, so many books but so little time.

  2. Mel U Says:

    It is a satire of official biographies of Miyamoto Musashi and actually a satire of all Confucian style biograhies of Japanese leaders in which they were portrayed as flawless-it really is hilarious and has some really brilliant images. Tanizaki is now on my “Read all they write TBR pile” along with Oe.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      True, official biographies are all sanitised aren’t they? I haven’t read any Oe yet but am planning to for next year’s Japanese Literary Challenge. What would you recommend I read first? If you are interested in Tanizaki, I found this great link for ‘Kakemono A Sketchbook of Post War Japan’ by Honor Tracy. The section on the Japanese writer (no. 130) is about Tanizaki. Enjoy.

  3. eriko Says:

    hi chasing-bawa,

    many times i was about to leave a reply and then didn’t feel like having a concrete enough comment. i enjoy your writing a lot – its so well written(must be the academic training you had) and there is always so much catch up.

    i’m impressed how many works by J authors you have read and its interesting to know what you choose.
    also, i’ve never realized that books by writers such as Kirino are being translated.

    i’ve been a slow reader recently –
    i was captured by the title of Tanizaki’s “In praise of shadows” probably a decade ago(!) and the concept has been hanging over my head for a long time – spotting the title here made me want to go back to it to see what i get out of it now.

    btw, have you ever heard of an essayist Masako Shirasu? she started to hang around with notable authors and art critics after the WWII and travelled a lot in japan even in her later years. she’s written about J traditional art&culture(some she has practiced herself) and about hidden villages that carry ancient traditions. what makes her writing attractive is that you can find many lines that inspire you on life and also that she could have a sharp tongue once in a while. i was wondering whether any of her writings are translated…

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hi, I’m so glad you left a comment, and what a nice comment! I don’t think there are any translated works of Masako Shirasu, but you have piqued my interest now. In English I can suggest the following two books about Japanese women writers and artists of the early 20th century which you might find interesting. ‘Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo’ by Phyllis Birnbaum is non-fiction and includes vignettes of the lives of 5 writers, artists and actors. ‘To Live and to Write: Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938’ edited by Yukiko Tanaka is a selection of stories by 9 writers. I can’t seem to prise myself away from the early 20th century. It was a time of so much change and turmoil; a clash of the traditional and the modern. And I love the fashion and style from that era.

  4. Moo Says:

    I read and enjoyed Out but wasn’t sure I would enjoy this one, especially since I found Out extremely dark and disturbing. Great review, thanks.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Yeah, you might want to have a break before reading this one. But it’s really good, just extremely dark.

  5. Bellezza Says:

    I’ve not read any books by Kirino; I wonder if I’m a little nervous because they seem so very dark. They would be the perfect choice for October, though, and Carl’s RIP IV. And, I can’t escape the fact that the world is dark in many, many places. I think I’ll try this one before Out.

  6. Bellezza Says:

    Oh, and this work you mentioned: The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki is totally new to me. Don’t forget, I’m the hostess, not the expert, and so it’s so good to learn from each of you! 🙂

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hi Bellezza, even though Kirino’s novels are dark and disturbing, she’s an amazing writer and definitely worth reading. And about The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki, I think it’s called Sasameyuki in Japanese.

  7. Terri B. Says:

    It’s darker than Out? Wow. I’m planning on reading it sometime. I have Real World sitting in my TBR stack. Hope I like it as much as I liked Out. Isn’t Japanese Literature Challenge fun? I still need to review The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and read some more for this challenge. I’ve been pretty immersed in RIP IV until now.

  8. Susan Says:

    Very intriguing review. I recently read Real World and just got Out in the mail (although I’m not sure when I’ll read it).

  9. chasing bawa Says:

    Terri B – I’m really enjoying the Japanese Literature Challenge because as well as tackling the books I’d been meaning to read, I’m also clearing my TBR shelf!

    Susan – I have yet to read Real World, but am planning to do so after a suitable break.

  10. Velvet Says:

    i read Out a couple years ago and remember how it left me uneasy like you felt with this one. however, i enjoyed the read and the issues and ideas brought forth. i do have grotesque on my shelf and am excited to read it sooner than later due to your review. ;-D

    • chasing bawa Says:

      It definitely gets you thinking about the modern malaise afflicting society, doesn’t it? Have fun reading but be prepared!

  11. tanabata Says:

    What a wonderful review! I’ve read both Out and Grotesque and have to say that while I loved Out for being, like you said, shocking and distubing but very good, Grotesque just made me sad. Grotesque is definitely darker and unsettling. I hated all the characters too and I just felt so blue from reading that book. I kind of resented spending so much time in that depressing world. So I can completely understand you wanting to read something light after it. I have Real World on my stack though and hope to get to it before too long.

    And I just have to say that I absolutely loved The Makioka Sisters when I read it a few years ago. I hope you enjoy it!

  12. savidgereads Says:

    We read this for a book group quite a while a go and it caused some fantastic discussion. None of us liked the characters in the book and yet we found the book gripping and fascinating despite its dark connotations and themes.

    I must, must read Out I have it on the TBR just havent picked it up yet.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      You must! When I first read Out I was shocked that a crime thriller could be written in this way. It was just so refreshingly different from the other novels I was reading at the time. But it was still disturbing nonetheless.

  13. Kame Says:

    Great review, Sakura.
    I saw this book last year,it had already been translated to Indonesian…but I want to find the English version. Still waiting for JF Library to own it.

    Your last comment really intrigues me…and the fact that I also love OUT makes me believe in everything you have written here.


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