Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
23 October, 2009
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.