Out by Natsuo Kirino

by Kristopher Cook
Time to Read: 4 minutes

Out depicts the critical moments following a domestic murder of a husband, by his wife, and how her work-group is quick to rally around her, but each with different intentions. Be it friendship, support, peer-pressure or monetary gain, these intentions all have many consequences.

Throw into the mix a decoy suspect, who seeks bloody revenge for the wrongdoing, and a loan-shark with his own run-ins – you have one hell of a melting pot for all this one to stew.

Although often classified as a mystery thriller, there is little mystery involved. The majority of the book is made up of what will happen next, followed by a cat and mouse end. For this reason, I think it’s safer to call this one a thriller.

Set in late ’90s Tokyo, Out is written in third-person narrative, giving detailed descriptions of the suburbs and offering gruesome details in the horror.

While the story is complex and names are a little tricky to distinguish, it moves along at a constant steady pace. The sense of dread is always around the corner.

In contrast, the perspective often left me feeling detached from the situation. Sure, I cared about (most) of the characters, and the potential for drama is enormous, but I never felt utterly claustrophobic in the murder, something that I would have preferred.

Bentō Boxes

Out centres on Yayoi, who snaps after prolonged exposure to physical abuse by her husband, who she then strangles with a belt, however, it’s Masako, the ring-leader of the group that drives the main plot, with her decisions controlling what the group do next.

Alongside her is Yoshie, who is likewise suffering from her own family’s breakdown.

Also lending a helping hand is Kuniko, the vain, self-absorbed woman who will struggle to make ends meet as long as she looks good and drives a fancy car, and Yoshie, a slightly naïve worker wanting to help out a friend.

Although her character isn’t as well developed as the others, she’s here to represent the increasing beauty standards within Japan, and the malevolent role that ageism plays within its society. As I say, this is an interesting take, but unfortunately, her character is a little one-dimensional.

The group all work the nightshift at a bentō lunch factory, standing on the production line for several hours at a time, doing mindless tasks over and over.

Themes

Natsuo Kirino’s psychological thriller deals with many recurring themes, no more so than genderisation. More specifically, the unfair treatment of women in Japan.

Contemporary Japan, along with the majority of Asian, views males as the dominant breadwinners, leaving the women at home to look after the children. Kirino turns this notion on its head and empowers the main female characters through their own struggles with keeping together a happy family. The running narrative is either a lazy husband who doesn’t contribute to the house or the kids, or husbands that feel threatened in some way by their other-halves.

It is shown throughout the book that in modern-day Japan if a woman is neither youthful or beautiful, she will struggle to break into a more financially stable world.

All of the characters included here lack these attributes by either being bland, unattractive, middle-aged, or simply frumpy.

Kuniko, for example, is tied to her work at the Bento factory because she sees herself as ‘ugly and fat’, meaning she’d struggle to find a more glamorous job. And by glamourous, I mean working as a secretary or as a bank clerk.

Concluding the Mystery

The plot is relatively water-tight and offers up escalating tension throughout. This may annoy some readers as the overall drama is slow-burning, but personally, that is my favourite kind of mystery.

I think the plot in the first third feels predictable and this lures you into thinking you know where it’s going, giving the feeling that it’s dragging.

However, the book then completely switches, leaving you gasping for more. In comes the supporting characters and Masako’s history, completely opening up the possibility of a mysterious finale; which is precisely what we get.

The conclusion did come out of nowhere, which made it feel disconnected from the rest of the book. It borders on pulp fiction, which is a stark contrast to the realistic grimy tone of the first few acts.

Closing Thoughts

I recommend this book highly for anyone who enjoys a slow-building mystery thriller.

The actions are tense, the tension is palpable, and the plot is dramatic.

Although, at points, it can drag there’s also enough about it to enjoy; chiefly the core plot, the characters and the tension.

Natsuo Kirino has proven here that she’s more than deserving of the awards won for her mystery writing.

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