Author: Natsuo Kirino
Publisher: Vintage Books [originally 1997, this translation 2004]
Length: 520 pages
Setting: Japan, present day
Genre: Psychological thriller / Noir
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating: 2/5
One-liner: A desolate tale of hopelessness and body parts.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Four women work the night shift at a lunch box filling factory in Japan. Their jobs are back-breaking and dull, their husbands universally boorish and their futures look equally desolate. One of the women, Yayoi, kills her husband when she’s tipped over the edge by his abuse. The other three women are drawn, one by one, into the effort to keep Yayoi from being caught. When a local pimp and club owner is accused by the police of the brutal murder the women think they’re home free but life doesn’t work out quite so neatly.
This is one of the bleakest books I have read in a very long time. The story is monotonous as it meanders from one depressing incident to the next while the characters are uninteresting and almost completely devoid of humanity. Even if you can overcome the unending dreariness that permeates this story I’m not convinced it has much else to offer. Perhaps in her zeal to depict Japanese society in a confronting way (virtually everyone is racist, all the men are misogynists, no one seems to place much value on a human life and there’s a whole load of gore) the author forgot to tell an engaging, entertaining story. I admire people who dare to show the more insidious aspects of a culture, but if writers choose fiction (rather than non-fiction) as their medium to do that then they have to entertain as well as inform and this book did not entertain me at all.
For a start there’s very little conflict and even less suspense which are two things even an average crime novel should have in spades. We know virtually from the outset whodunit and why. The only vaguely interesting question is whether or not she will get away with it but as she’s a two dimensional caricature it doesn’t seem to matter much and I was in little doubt that whatever the facts of the ending it wouldn’t be a happy one. And if I could have ignored all of that I would still have struggled with the credibility factor. I could perhaps have bought that all the characters would be so blithely unaffected by the piling up of body parts around them but when the supposedly smartest of the women completely fails to see really obvious danger ahead and then throws herself stupidly into the dumbest of femjep scenarios I lost what remaining interest I had.
Then there are the characters who are all so detached from each other and the events going on in their lives that I as a reader was never terribly interested in what happened to any of them either. I should, for example, have been outraged when one of the women, Masako, was shown to have a past in which she was treated abominably by her employers merely because she was a woman. But I didn’t have any sense of her as a person and was more bored by the umpteenth revelation that life (for these people anyway) sucks.
Finally there’s the writing which leads to the unnecessary length. The best noir fiction is concise and memorable often for what is left unsaid but this book is excruciatingly long. It’s overly repetitive and contains a plethora of detailed descriptions of events and trains-of-thought that add nothing to the story.
In short I was underwhelmed by this novel. What could have been an interesting depiction of the treatment of women in modern Japanese society was, for me anyway, lost in the tedious, gore-filled story and dull characterisations. For me to be informed and even politically motivated by a work of fiction I need to be entertained first, as happens with the writing of Stieg Larsson, Matt Beynon Rees or a dozen other writers. This one just left me feeling guilty I had picked it for a book club read.
The book won Japan’s top award for crime fiction in 1997 so clearly other people think very differently about the book than I do. For a far more positive view of the book than my own check out Story Time.
Here’s a written interview with former romance novelist turned award-winning crime writer Natsuo Kirino