This was the 2011 book that took me further away from my comfort zone. I don’t usually read thrillers and never once picked up an Asian thriller, although I know they have a great following.

Four women work the graveyard shift at a lunch box filling factory in Tokyo’s outskirts. Their jobs are back-breaking and repetitive, their families universally unloving and their futures equally bleak. One of the women accidentally kills her husband after he becomes abusive and the other three are drawn into the effort to hide the crime. When the police arrests a local club owner with connections to prostitution, the women hope it’ll be the end of it, but they hope in vain.

There is no redemption in Out. Everything from the story to the description of suburban Tokyo is unrelentingly bleak and unforgiving. There is not one likable character or one moment of sunshine. Kirino creates her story almost surgically, and every sentence seem to add another layer to the dark mood of the book.

Quite a lot happens, so why did it feel like the story developed slowly? Not slow as in boring, more the slowness of the lethargic lives these women lead. There’s not much humanity in any of the characters and everyone is racist, opportunistic and all men are misogynistic. Don’t be mislead by the plot about three women helping a fourth out of trouble, as there’s also no friendship in Out, no one loves or does any good to others, either to friends or family.

I’ve read in several places that the book is a commentary to women’s place in Japanese society, and can see the point: the numbing of feelings and consequent loss of humanity caused by sexism, ageism and a huge stress of physical appearance. My problem as a reader was that I also became numb to the character’s plight (was it the author’s intention? If it was, it’s brilliantly done!).

None of these four women cared, so I was never terribly interested in what happened to any of them either. For instance, at some point we are told that Masako was treated horribly by her previous employers, mostly because she was a woman and good at her job. In normal circumstances I’d have boiled, but I was kind of bored by yet another proof that life is unfair and nothing you can do will ever change it.

Was also surprised by the innumerable references to looks (or lack of them). At first I put it down as a criticism of the objectification of women, but they came up so often that after a while they felt less like a social commentary and more like the expression of Kirin’s actual way of thinking and looking at people (again, if she’s demonstrating how she’s also influenced by her own misogynistic culture, it’s perfectly accomplished!). The same with the ending: the sadomasochism bit felt gratuitous and only there to unsubtly increase the grimness of it all. But, disclaimer: it’s likely that’s just me getting influenced by the unforgiving feeling of the book.

Reading Out was my attempt at eating silk-worm cocoons in China a couple of summers ago: I’m glad I did it for the experience, but I’m not sure I’d like to do it again.


Other thoughts: Tip of the Iceberg, Leeswammes, Mysteries in Paradise, A Book Sanctuary, Musings of a Bookish Kitten, Farm Lane Books, another cookie crumbles, Novel Insights, Book Magic, Piling on the Books, Book Chase, It’s all about me (time), Dolce Bellezza (yours?)