Not a book for the faint of heart, Out is Japanese author, Kirino’s, first novel translated into English. It is, however, as equally interesting and insightful as it is macabre and grisly. Interesting in that it provides a soapbox for Kirino’s sentiments about Japanese society and the role of women within it, and grisly in that it illustrates the violent depths to which we are capable of plummeting given the right motive.
The four women at the center of the story live dull, fettered lives, each subjugated by the drudgery and subservience exacted on them by their families, their income, their looks and their gender. United as a team at the bento box factory where they work the grueling night shift, these four women would otherwise have no association. At work, though, they have formed an alliance that alleviates the monotonous and back-breaking grind of tedious, repetitive labour.
At the heart of each woman is a festering dissatisfaction with themselves and the cards they have been dealt by society, and while this perhaps goes unacknowledged, or is simply regarded as one of the expected, quotidian burdens of a woman’s life, one event or even one small alteration to their routine has the potential to expunge discontent and replace it with revenge, desperation, and a sadistic, vehement and uncontrollable downward spiral into depravity.
Yayoi, Kumiko, Masako and Yoshie come from four very different household situations. When Yayoi, a placid and pretty mother of two young boys, becomes fed-up with her husband’s abuse, philandering and gambling, she strangles him in a moment of violent and unusual passion. Terrified of the consequences, she contacts Masako who volunteers to dispose of the body. Yoshie and Kuniko, drawn by the promise of a payout, assist with the bloody dismembering of the body, which is then distributed into 43 bags. Each is entrusted with disposing of the bags across the city. Kuniko, a self-centered, lazy and untrustworthy member of the team, foolishly puts hers into rubbish bins in a local park and, of course, they are discovered, and the identity of Yayoi’s husband along with them.
Failure to dispose of the body properly leads to a chain reaction of events. The murder was merely the beginning, a beginning that awakened the dragon, and the dragon knows everything and is out to get each of them for his own malevolent motives.
Out turns Japanese stereotypes upside-down. Forget about demure, tea-making, flower-arranging, kimono-wearing geisha types; Kirino smashes this illusion to pieces. Japanese women in the lower echelons of society are here seen as gritty, forbearing, and forced to eke out an existence the best way they know how, and that way is not necessarily going to be pretty.