THE BOOKSTORE KAT – OUT by Natsuo Kirino

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By Kat Bennett
There’s a line in a John Donne poem I’ve always liked: “And makes one little room an everywhere.”  As one might suspect given the poet, Donne was referring to love.  Love makes one little room an everywhere.  But the same can be said of literature.  It’s one of the things I adore about literature: you can curl up with a good book in one little room, and travel the world, encounter new situations, meet new people.  Literature, to borrow from Donne, makes one little room an everywhere.
The novel “Out” by Natsuo Kirino does take you to exotic locations, introduce you to new people and (I assume) new situations.  But it is about as far from a John Donne love poem as you can get.  “Out” is the story of a group of women working in a boxed-lunch factory in Tokyo.  One day, one of the women snaps and strangles her abusive husband.  She then calls her friends from the factory to help her dispose of the body.  (Hence the assumption that this would be a new situation for you, Gentle Reader.  If it is not a new situation for you – if you have strangled your spouse and called your friends from the boxed-lunch factory to help you dispose of the body – why, you should write a book!)
This novel isn’t a whodunit; we know from the start who did it.  However, it is a crime novel.  For that reason, I can’t tell you too much about the story without giving spoilers.  I will tell you, though, that the story takes you to an underworld of Tokyo that people outside of it could never have imagined.  It is both fascinating and gruesome, spiced with some very dark humor.
The story is suspenseful and well-written.  It has won Japan’s Grand Prix for crime fiction, as well as having been a finalist for the Edgar Award.  Plot-driven and fast-paced, it is worth a read solely because it’s a good crime story.  Plot aside, though, while reading the novel I found the combination of utterly alien and entirely familiar to be enthralling.  The characters, for example, are not unlike people we may know or have met in our own lives.  There is a middle-aged widow, now a single mother, who cares for her bed-ridden mother-in-law.  She is treated horribly by her mother-in-law, and treated even worse by her teenaged daughter.  Yet she caries on, shouldering what she sees as her duties, without outward complaint.  There is a younger woman, slightly pudgy, who is shallow, self-centered, and mean spirited.  A competent, intelligent woman – the person everyone counts on – working a job far below her abilities.
And, of course, there is the young mother (Yayoi) with the abusive husband (Kenji) whom she kills:  “Yayoi stared at the wedding ring on her finger as if she’d never seen it before.  It was a plain platinum ring.  She and Kenji had gone to a department store to pick it out one warm Sunday in early spring.  He’d taken one look at the showcase and then asked for the most expensive one they had; after all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime purchase.  She could still remember how flustered and happy she’d felt that day.  Where had those feelings gone?  What had happened to that happy couple?”
While Yoyoi’s actions in murdering her spouse are not be something we are familiar with, Yayoi’s confusion and pain over the disintegration of her relationship is something we have all either been through or seen at least one friend go through.  Contrast that to one of the reasons Yayoi’s relationship was crumbling: her husband had spent all of their savings on illegal gambling in a club owned by a former member of the Japanese mafia, and on trying to impress a “hostess” at a club owned by the same ex-mafioso.  The club, one of many such clubs in Tokyo, is a holdover from the days of the geisha.  The club is not a bordello where men pay to have sex with a beautiful woman, but rather a club in which they pay to have a beautiful woman join them for a drink.  And pay dearly for the privilege.  The familiar and the alien.
If you’re looking for “happily ever after,” this is not the book for you.  This book is a far cry from Prince Charming, glass slippers, and 17th century love poetry.  If, however, you love a good hard-boiled crime novel and exotic settings, you’ll love “Out.”

“Out” by Katsuo Kirino.  Available at Allende Books while supplies last.
Kathleen Bennett is co-owner of Allende Books, and a full-time resident of La Paz.  She writes a monthly book review called The Bookstore Kat for The Baja Citizen.  Head to to read past columns.
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