No 387 Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Rebecca Copeland (for Japanese Literature Challenge 15)

Having read and enjoyed a previous novel by Natsuo Kirino, I decided to go for another book of hers in the 746 for the Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted, as always by Dolce Bellezza.

This tonally confusing novel opens with the murders of two Tokyo prostitutes. What makes the murders strange is that both the victims had attended the exclusive and expensive school at the same time in their teens. How did these two women end up working on the streets of Tokyo, and is it more than a coincidence that they were murdered in the same district within one month of each other?

The main narrator of the novel is Miss Hirata (we never learn her first name), sister of one of the strikingly beautiful Yuriko, one of the victims and friend of Kazue, the other victim. There was no love lost between the sisters as Miss Hirata has always been consumer by jealousy of her beautiful younger sister, who knew just how to use her looks to get exactly what she wanted in life.

As young women, these three attended the elite Q School for Young Women, an expensive training round for the daughters of Japan’s elite and for the country’s most intelligent girls. At Q School, a strict and painful hierarchy exists, where, to be poor or ugly, or worse, both, made life very difficult. Miss Hirato falls, to some extent, into both those categories. She lives with her grandfather in social housing in an unfashionable part of the city. She’s ‘half’ as she calls herself – her mother is Japanese and her father is Swiss. She is smart, but not smart enough and without beauty she can’t make it into the elite crowd at school, where everything is scrutinised and bullying is rife. Her sister Yuriko is not smart, but her face is carrying her far. Kazue is in the top tier of intelligence, but her desperate attempts to be accepted by the in-crowd make her a subject of scorn.

This world is sharply depicted, and depressingly convincing, a microcosm of the wider world into which these young women will have to make their way. The intertwined stories of these three women and their killer, a Chinese migrant provides an icy and often terrifying exploration of the class system in Japan. Zhang, the Chonese labourer who has been charged with the murders has himself come through a gruelling but very different childhood as the son of a peasant farmer and has also had his own brush with prostitution. However, despite admitting to the murder of Yuriko, he vehemently denies the murder of Kazue. Did he kill both girls and is there a link between their deaths?

Beneath the surface of this story lies some very interesting questions. What drives women to prostitution, regardless of their backgrounds? Are lives mapped out by the social standing of our families? What kind of individuals flourish in such a class-driven society and what lies to we tell ourselves in order to justify the less than savoury things that we do? Unfortunately though, I didn’t feel like any of these questions were answered with any degree of insight.   

The plot is told through a variety of unreliable narrative voices and includes journal entries and court transcripts, but the main protagonist is Miss Hirata, whose attempts to get to the truth of the deaths of her sister and her school friend are diluted by her own unpleasant personality. Now I don’t mind an unlikeable narrator, but what starts out as a malevolent intensity, soon becomes wearying. Hirata doesn’t just hate her beautiful sister, she hates everyone. Her father, whom she believes might not be her biological parent; her put-upon mother, whose suicide she reacts to with a bored shrug and every man she comes into contact with. There is nothing else to her personality other than scorn and at times it makes for tedious reading.

Thanks to Yuriko, I too had been blessed with a certain talent. My talent was the uncompromising ability to feel spite. And whereas my talent far exceeded those of others, it was a talent that impressed no one but myself. I fawned out my talent. I polished it diligently every day.

Added to this are a series of detailed reminiscences and flashbacks from peripheral characters that not only slow the plot down and drag the pace, but don’t seem to add anything to the overall story. Having mentioned plot, I should say though that there really isn’t one here. The book seems to start out as a whodunit or whydunit but fails to engage on either level.

Narrators contradict themselves and each other and there is no resolution to any of the plot strands. That’s not something I would have a major issue with if any of the interesting themes raised by the book were interrogated. A crime novel which explores why and how certain people become victims and certain people become killers would be a fascinating one, but this wasn’t it.

For me it ended up as nothing more than a lot of generally unpleasant people doing unpleasant things both to themselves and others. I though Kirino explored similar things to much better effect in her novel Out. This one just wasn’t for me at all. Grotesque indeed.


novels in translation The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

15 Comments Leave a comment

  1. A shame this backfired as the themes are such interesting ones. Like you, likeable charcters are not a necessity for me but when exploring this kind of subject, I think you’re more likely to engage your readers if at least one or two of them are.

    Liked by 1 person

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