Out is a fantastic read for anyone who is sick of predictable narratives. It was introduced to me as a mystery novel, which always follow relatively unsurprising patterns: there is a murder, an amateur sleuth gets involved, they solve the mystery, and the crook gets their comeuppance. Devotees of the genre are in it for the twists, but the timing of them, and often the twists themselves, are all too often predictable as well. However, in Out, we are know all about the murder and its perpetrator almost from the very beginning. In fact, we see it happen, and we know the identity of everyone involved. To me, that made the book even more mysterious than most of the genre, because I couldn’t even imagine how everything was going to come together in the end. Not only did I care about the fate of Masako and the other characters, but I kept reading because I desperately wanted to know how Kirino would solve this puzzle she had laid out for herself.
The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, but the protagonist turns out to be Masako, a serious and savvy middle aged woman. Many of the characters are housewives or widows who work together at a factory making boxed lunches; others, which show up later in the novel, are involved with the Yakuza and other similarly seedy occupations. Masako, as a middle-aged, lower class woman, is given a sympathetic treatment in a way that’s rare for characters like her. She is practical, sometimes to the point of ruthlessness, and yet readers can’t help but empathize with her. Her son hates her, her husband is distant, but readers see something in Masako that her family doesn’t: an astonishing inner strength. Natsuo Kirino’s interest in psychology is evident in her portrayal of each of the very different characters, from Masako to the sexually sadistic Yakuza to the homicidal housewife who sets the story rolling. Between the structure and the characters, Out feels extremely realistic. Like in real life, there isn’t a clear sense of the narrative as a discrete, clean package. Instead, the story goes until it is over, and due to the high stakes and the way we’re made to care about the characters, it is riveting all the way through.
It was published in 1997 in Japan, so English readers will have to read the translation that came out in 2004. However, nothing about the translation, or the portrayal of Japanese culture, feels clunky. For example, since Western readers may not be familiar with bento and its cultural significance, the translator just refers to them as “boxed lunches” and fills us in a little about the type of people who eat them when a character purchases one herself. Snyder has no need for the type of exposition blocks that I have seen in other, less skillful translations, and for that I was very thankful.
This novel is suited for all relatively mature readers who would be able to appreciate its complexity. Even those who aren’t fans of mystery (like myself) should give it a try because it is gripping but doesn’t lack the humanity and subtlety that we look for in more literary fiction. However, it is not for the faint-hearted. There are many grotesque scenes, made even more grotesque by the intimacy of the author’s portrayal. If you would be disturbed by an empathetic depiction of a combination rape/murder or a dismemberment, spare yourself the nausea, because much of the book contains very detailed, very bloody acts.