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  • Written by Natsuo Kirino
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9781400078370
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Out

A Novel

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Nothing in Japanese literature prepares us for the stark, tension-filled, plot-driven realism of Natsuo Kirino’s award-winning literary mystery Out.

This mesmerizing novel tells the story of a brutal murder in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works the night shift making boxed lunches strangles her abusive husband and then seeks the help of her coworkers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The coolly intelligent Masako emerges as the plot’s ringleader, but quickly discovers that this killing is merely the beginning, as it leads to a terrifying foray into the violent underbelly of Japanese society.

At once a masterpiece of literary suspense and pitch-black comedy of gender warfare, Out is also a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.

Excerpt

Night Shift

1


She got to the parking lot earlier than usual. The thick, damp July darkness engulfed her as she stepped out of the car. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity, but the night seemed especially black and heavy. Feeling a bit short of breath, Masako Katori looked up at the starless night sky. Her skin, which had been cool and dry in the air-conditioned car, began to feel sticky. Mixed in with the exhaust fumes from the Shin-Oume Expressway, she could smell the faint odor of deep-fried food, the odor of the boxed-lunch factory where she was going to work.

"I want to go home." The moment the smell hit her, the words came into her head. She didn't know exactly what home it was she wanted to go to, certainly not the one she'd just left. But why didn't she want to go back there? And where did she want to go? She felt lost.

From midnight until five-thirty without a break, she had to stand at the conveyor belt making boxed lunches. For a part-time job, the pay was good, but the work was backbreaking. More than once, when she was feeling unwell, she'd been stopped here in the parking lot by the thought of the hard shift ahead. But this was different, this feeling of aimlessness. As she always did at this moment, she lit a cigarette, but tonight she realized for the first time that she did it to cover the smell of the factory.

The boxed-lunch factory was in the middle of the Musashi-Murayama district, facing a road that was abutting the gray wall of a large automobile plant. Otherwise, the area was given over to dusty fields and a cluster of small auto repair shops. The land was flat and the sky stretched in every direction. The parking lot was a three-minute walk from Masako's workplace, beyond another factory, now abandoned. It was no more than a vacant lot that had been roughly graded. The parking spaces had once been marked off with strips of tape, but dust had long since made them almost invisible. The employees' cars were parked at random angles across the lot. It was a place where no one would be likely to notice someone hiding in the grass or behind a car. The whole effect was somehow sinister, and Masako glanced around nervously as she locked the car.

She heard the sound of tires, and for an instant the overgrown summer grass that bordered the lot shone in the yellow headlights. A green Volkswagen Golf cabriolet, top down, drove into the lot, and her plump co-worker, Kuniko Jonouchi, nodded from the driver's seat.

"Sorry I'm late," she said, pulling the car into the space next to Masako's faded red Corolla. Her driving seemed careless, and she made more noise than necessary putting on the hand brake and closing the car door. Everything about her was shrill and gaudy. Masako stubbed out her cigarette with the toe of her sneaker.

"Nice car," she said. The subject of Kuniko's car had come up a number of times at the factory.

"You really think so?" Kuniko said, sticking out her tongue in pleasure at the compliment. "But it's got me up to my eyes in debt." Masako gave a noncommittal laugh. The car didn't seem to be the only source of Kuniko's debts. She had nothing but designer accessories, and her clothes were obviously expensive.

"Let's go," Masako said. Sometime after the New Year, she'd begun to hear talk of a strange man hanging around the road that led from the parking lot to the factory. And then several of the part-timers had reported being pulled into the shadows and assaulted before barely escaping; so the company had just issued a warning that the women should walk in groups. They set off through the summer darkness along the unpaved, ill-lit road. On the right was a ragged line of apartment blocks and farmhouses with large gardens-not particularly appealing but at least a sign of life in the area. On the left, beyond an overgrown ditch, was a lonely row of abandoned buildings: an older boxed-lunch factory, a derelict bowling alley. The victims said that their attacker had dragged them between the deserted buildings, and so Masako kept careful watch as she and Kuniko hurried along.

From one of the apartment houses on the right, they could hear a man and woman arguing in Portuguese; more than likely they worked at the factory. In addition to the housewives who worked part-time, the factory employed a large number of Brazilians, both ethnic and of Japanese descent, many of them married couples.

"Everybody's saying that the pervert is probably a Brazilian," said Kuniko, frowning into the darkness. Masako walked on without answering. It didn't make much difference where the man was from, she thought, there was no cure for the kind of depression that came from working in that factory. The women would just have to protect themselves as best they could. "They say he's a big, strong man, that he grabs the women and holds them without saying a word." Something in Kuniko's tone betrayed a hint of longing. Masako felt that Kuniko was somehow blocked, closed off, like a thick cloud cover obscuring the stars at night. From behind them came the sound of squeaking bicycle brakes, and when they turned nervously to look, they found an older woman straddling her bike.

"So, it's you two," she said. "Hi." It was Yoshie Azuma. She was a widow in her late fifties, with nimble fingers that made her the fastest worker on the line. The other women had taken to calling her "Skipper" out of grudging respect.

"Ah, the Skipper. Good morning," Masako said, sounding relieved. Kuniko said nothing but dropped back a step.

"Don't you start calling me that, too," said Yoshie, but she seemed secretly pleased with the name. Climbing off her bike, she fell in step with the other two. She was small but solidly built in a low-slung way that seemed ideally suited to physical labor. Yet her face was fine-featured and pale, floating up now almost seductively out of the darkness. It was perhaps this contradiction that made her seem unhappy, somehow unfortunate. "I suppose you're walking together because of the fuss they've been making about that pervert," she said.

"That's right," said Masako. "Kuniko's still young enough to be in danger." Kuniko giggled. She was twenty-nine. Yoshie skirted a puddle that was glimmering in the dim light and turned to look at Masako.

"You're still in the running yourself," she said. "You're what, forty-three?"

"Don't be silly," Masako said, suppressing a laugh. The compliment made her feel self-conscious in a way she rarely did anymore.

"Then you're all dried up, are you? Cold and dry?" Yoshie's tone was teasing, but it seemed to Masako that she'd hit the nail on the head. She did feel cold and dry, almost reptilian, as she slithered along now.

"But aren't you a bit later than usual today?" she said, to change the subject.

"Oh, Granny's been a little difficult." Yoshie frowned and fell silent. She was caring for her bedridden mother-in-law at home. Masako stared straight ahead, deciding to avoid any more questions. As they cleared the row of deserted buildings on the left, they came upon several of the white trucks that delivered the boxed lunches to convenience stores across the city, and beyond the trucks loomed the factory itself, shining dimly in the fluorescent light like a nightless city.

They waited while Yoshie went to park her bike in the racks next to the factory, and then climbed the green, Astroturf-covered stairs that led up the side of the building. The entrance was on the second floor. To the right was the office, and down the corridor was the workers' rest area and the locker rooms. The factory itself was on the ground floor, so once they'd changed, they would make their way downstairs. Shoes had to be removed on the red synthetic carpet at the factory entrance. The fluorescent light washed out the color of the carpet, so that the hallway looked rather gloomy. The complexions of the women around her also seemed darkened, and as she looked at her weary companions, Masako wondered if she looked as bad herself. Komada, the tight-lipped company health inspector, was stationed in front of the cubbyholes where they stored their shoes, and as each woman walked by, she rubbed her back with a spool of sticky tape to remove any dust or dirt she might be bringing in.

They entered the large tatami-mat room that served as the employees' lounge. Small groups of people were chatting here and there, having already changed into their white uniforms. They sipped tea or munched snacks as they waited for work to begin, while a few had found spots in the corner to lie down for a quick nap. Of the nearly one hundred workers on the night shift, about a third were Brazilian, and of these roughly half were men. And since it was the middle of the summer holidays, the number of student workers had increased somewhat; still, the great majority of the employees were part-timers, housewives in their forties or fifties.

The three women exchanged nods with friends as they made their way toward the changing room, but then they noticed Yayoi Yamamoto sitting alone in a corner. She looked up at them as they approached, but no smile came to her face and she remained slumped on the tatami.

"Morning," Masako said to her, and at last she smiled faintly for a moment. "You look exhausted." Yayoi nodded weakly and gave them a despondent look but still didn't answer. Yayoi was the best-looking of the four women-in fact, she was the most attractive woman on the night shift. Her face was almost flawless, with a broad forehead and a nice balance between the eyes and the brow, an upturned nose and full lips. Her body, too, though petite, was perfect. Her looks were so conspicuous at the factory that a number of women had taken to bullying her, though others were nice to her. Masako had adopted the role of her protector, perhaps because the two of them were so different. While Masako herself did her best to live her life according to reason and common sense, Yayoi seemed to be dragging a good deal of emotional baggage through the world. Almost unconsciously, she held on to yesterday's sorrows, playing the role of a pretty woman at the mercy of cluttered and volatile feelings.

"What's up?" asked Yoshie, thumping her on the shoulder with a rough, red hand. "You look bad." Yayoi gave a violent start and Yoshie turned toward Masako, who signaled the other two to go on without her and sat down in front of Yayoi.

"Are you sick?" she asked.

"No, it's nothing."

"Did you have another fight with your husband?"

"I'd be happier if he were still even willing to fight with me," she said glumly, her bleary eyes staring off at some point beyond Masako. Realizing they would have to start work soon, Masako began gathering her hair into a bun.

"What happened?" she said.

"I'll tell you later," said Yayoi.

"Why not now?" Masako urged, glancing at the clock on the wall.

"No, later. It's a long story." A look of rage appeared on Yayoi's face for an instant, then vanished. Giving up the effort, Masako rose to go.

"Okay," she said. She hurried into the changing room to find her uniform. It was only nominally a room, with no more than a curtain separating it from the lounge. On the wall were crowded rows of sturdy hangers, like those at a department store sale. In the section for the daytime employees, the soiled white uniforms hung in tight clusters, while the space reserved for the night shift was bright with multicolored street clothes.

"We'll see you down there," said Yoshie as she and Kuniko left the lounge. It was time to punch in. According to the rules, they had to punch the time clock between 11:45 and midnight and then wait downstairs at the entrance to the factory floor.

Masako pulled her hanger from the bar. It held a white gown with a zipper down the front and a pair of work pants with elastic at the waist. She quickly slipped the gown over her shoulders and, noting the position of the men in the room, pulled off her jeans, then stepped into the work pants. There was no separate changing room for the men, and though she'd been working here nearly two years she still couldn't get used to the arrangement.

After slipping a black net over the hair she'd already gathered with a barrette, she covered her head with the paper hat they all wore, more like a shower cap than a real hat. Someone had nicknamed them "locusts" for their bug-like shape. She picked up a clear plastic apron and left the changing room, only to find Yayoi still sitting where she'd left her, as if she had nothing better to do.

"Hey! Better get a move on," she said, but when she saw how slow she was to get up, she was more worried than bothered. Almost all the other employees had already left the lounge; only a few Brazilian men still lingered on the tatami. They were leaning against the wall smoking, their thick legs thrown out in front of them.

"Morning," said one of them, raising a hand that was still wrapped around a cigarette butt. Masako nodded, giving him a thin smile. The name tag on his chest said "Kazuo Miyamori," but Masako couldn't help thinking how foreign he looked, with his darkish skin, caved-in face, and protruding forehead. She imagined he did one of the more physical jobs, such as shuttling rice to the automated feeder. "Good morning," he said, this time to Yayoi, though she was too distracted to look at him. He seemed disappointed, but then this kind of thing happened often enough in this cold, unfriendly workplace.

They went into the toilet for a moment before donning their masks and aprons. Hands were rubbed raw with scrubbing brushes and then disinfected. They punched their time cards, stepped into the white work shoes, and were checked once more by the health inspector, who had taken up a new station by the stairs that led down to the plant. Once again Komada rubbed their backs with the tape roller while carefully inspecting their fingernails and hands.

"No cuts?" Even the smallest scratch on a finger meant you were ineligible for any job that involved touching food. Masako and Yayoi held up their hands for inspection. Yayoi seemed about to collapse as she stood waiting for the test to end.

"Are you all right?" Masako asked.

"Yes, I guess," said Yayoi.
Natsuo Kirino|Author Desktop

About Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino - Out

Photo © Makoto Watanabe

Natsuo Kirino, born in 1951, quickly established a reputation in her country as one of a rare breed of mystery writers whose work goes well beyond the conventional crime novel. This fact has been demonstrated by her winning not only the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction in Japan for Out in 1998, but one of its major literary awards--the Naoki Prize--for Soft Cheeks (which has not yet been published in English), in 1999. Several of her books have also been turned into feature movies. Out was the first of her novels to appear in English and was nominated for an Edgar Award.

Author Q&A

A Note from the Author
“I wanted to read a novel about an ordinary, middle-aged housewife, but there weren’t any. So I decided to write one for myself. Every character in my book would have some flaw in her makeup; everyone would have something on her mind.”

Praise

Praise

A nervy thriller. . . . Out has the force of a juicy tabloid scandal. . . . A potent cocktail of urban blight, perverse feminism and vigilante justice.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Scarily omniscient. . . . Like Walter Mosley, [Kirino] exploits the beat-down potential of the hard-boiled novel to depict life on society's bottom in ways that subtly read as one part social protest, one part sadomasochistic entertainment.” –The Village Voice

“A gutsy, unflinching foray into the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the human soul. . . . Riveting, hair-raising . . . definitely not for the faint-of-heart.” –Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Mingling biting feminist commentary with engrossing storytelling . . . a scathing allegory about the subjugation of women in Japanese society and the secret lives this forces them to lead.” –The New York Times

“Masterful and psychologically astute.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“A brutally realistic picture of contemporary society. . . . Spare, unsentimental.” –Newsweek

“So dark, so gruesome . . . it left this reader reeling. No gritty urban American tale of violence can match the horror of Out.” –Carol Memmott, USA Today

“Daring and disturbing, Out is prepared to push the limits of this world–not only in violence and sex but also in human outlook. . . . Remarkable.” –Los Angeles Times

“Truly a universal tale. . . . Kirino knows not only everybody’s business but everybody’s mind–her way with interior monologue is pungent and prismatic.” –The Village Voice

“Brings the mystery thriller to new levels of intensity and realism. . . . Out has great plot twists, vigor, and an ending that would make Hannibal Lecter smile.” –Library Journal (starred review)

“Sensational.” –Time Out, NY

“Finally, a masterpiece in this genre . . . . a novel that realistically shows how ordinary people can be drawn into committing brutal crimes.” — Prize Jury, Mystery Writers of Japan

“Forget about flower arranging and geisha girls. . . . Out offers an intriguing look at the darker sides of Japanese society while smashing stereotypes about Japanese women.” –Washington Post Book World

“A knuckle-clenching thriller.” –Entertainment Weekly

“Grimly satisfying . . . like no one you’ve ever read before.” –Kirkus Reviews

Out descends beneath the genre’s foundation to provide a remarkable series of insights into the forces that drive the charnel house of a postindustrial culture.” –American Book Review

“Dark, seductive and occasionally brutal, Out explores the lower classes of Japanese society with a distinctive gallows humor.” –Book

“A gutsy, unflinching foray into the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the human soul. And the book’s riveting, hair-raising final scenes, although definitely not for the faint-at-heart, serve as an unsettling reminder that the desperate desire for freedom has the potential to set any ordinary individual among us off down a very dark and lonely road.” –Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Out turns the whole subservient geisha image on its head.” –Jane

“Absurdly compellingÉa superb and riveting thriller.” –Book Trust (UK)

“An exciting, disturbing read. . . . Kirino’s Tokyo is an unexpected place, far from the glamorous stereotype.” –Telegraph (UK)

“A feminist revenge plot meets social critique and hardcore horror in a startling Japanese mix of satire and sensation.”–The Independent (UK)

“A page-turning thriller that at the same time delivers one of the most powerful wallops for feminist literature in recent memory.”–Telegraph Magazine (UK)
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

WINNER OF JAPAN’S GRAND PRIX FOR CRIME FICTION
Edgar Award Finalist

“A nervy thriller. . . . Out has the force of a juicy tabloid scandal. . . . A potent cocktail of urban blight, perverse feminism and vigilante justice.” —The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s exploration of Out, a daring and disturbing psychological thriller set in contemporary Japan. Written by Natsuo Kirino, one of Japan’s most popular writers, Out won Japan’s Grand Prix for Crime Fiction and was an Edgar Award Finalist for Best Mystery Novel in the United States.

About the Guide

In the dreary, exhausting hours of the nightshift at a boxed-lunch factory, four women have formed a friendship of sorts. They work side by side and chat briefly each night, always carefully guarding their troubling thoughts and personal worries. When Yayoi Yamamoto, a young wife and mother, kills her abusive husband, the others help her dispose of the body; however, they become bound to one another in an ever tightening web of conspiratorial intimacy, mutual suspicion, and protective self-interest.

Yayoi had been deeply in love when she married the attractive, attentive Kenji, but his careless cruelty and reckless gambling have left her angry and embittered. Her coworkers at the factory are trapped by their own economic difficulties and emotional isolation. Yoshie Azuma, a widow, is burdened with a demanding, bedridden mother-in-law and two promiscuous daughters. Kuniko Jonouchi, a self-absorbed woman addicted to expensive clothes and make-up, is deeply in debt to an unsavory loan shark. Masako Katori has perfected a cool, competent façade that conceals a deep despair about her lot in life and her increasing alienation from a preoccupied husband and a teenage son who has not spoken for more than a year. The first person Yayoi turns to after the murder, Masako efficiently devises a plan for erasing all evidence of the crime. After a brief investigation of Yayoi and her friends, the police arrest Satake, a sociopathic ex-convict known to have a grudge against Kenji. The women seem to be in the clear—until Satake resolves to take revenge for his false arrest and pinpoints the vulnerabilities that will allow him to conquer and destroy the women, one by one.

Gritty, shocking, and suspenseful, Out is an audacious look at lives marginalized by society and the desperation that drives ordinary people to commit acts of unthinkable violence.

About the Author

Natsuo Kirino is the author of more than forty books. In addition to winning the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction for Out, she received one of Japan’s highest literary awards, the Naoki Prize, for Soft Cheeks. Several of her books have been made into popular movies in Japan. Out is the first of her novels to appear in English.

Discussion Guides

1. Masako believes that she “did her best to live her life according to reason and common sense” [p. 7]. Is her decision to work at a low-paying factory job based solely on common sense? What other motivations does she have for working at the factory? What psychological needs does the job fulfill? In what ways is the choice a reaction to her experiences in her previous job at an upscale credit and loan company?

2. Kuniko wishes “she were a different woman, living a different life, in a different place, with a different man” [p.15]. Yoshie “had wrapped up everything personal that mattered in a tight package . . . and in its place she had developed a single obsession: diligence. This was her trick for getting by” [p. 23]. What do these descriptions convey about how each woman deals with life’s realities? Are their approaches typical of women of their respective ages? Is there a common thread between them?

3. How does Kirino make the friendship among the four women, so very different in age and character, believable? How do the women’s perceptions of one another differ from the way they perceive themselves? What literary devices does Kirino use to bring this difference to light?

4. What finally gives Yayoi the strength and resolve to kill Kenji? Has she simply been pushed over the edge? How does the realization that she hates Kenji [p. 44] affect her? Does giving a name to her emotions make it easier for her to act?

5. Masako and Yayoi discuss getting rid of the body in a calm, collected manner [pp. 49–55]. Why do you think the author chose this tone? What impact does it have on the reader? Does it distance you from the characters—or subtly draw you into the conspiracy?

6. Each of the women finds a way to justify her participation in the grisly task of hiding Yayoi’s crime. Are Yoshie and Kuniko simply seduced by the promise of money, or are their reasons for participating more complicated? What does Masako discover about herself as she organizes the cover-up?

7. A series of careless mistakes and coincidences expose the group to dangers they could not have foreseen. In what ways do their individual flaws and weaknesses contribute to their difficulties? Do their admirable qualities—Masako’s intelligence and her strength as a leader, and Yoshie’s loyal, trusting nature, for example—also play a part in their downfall?

8. As a young man, Satake committed a crime so horrible that even his fellow gang members were shocked [p. 38]. His personal reaction has shaped his life ever since, cutting him off from his own emotions and isolating him from other people. How does Kirino humanize him and move beyond a stereotyped portrait of sociopath to present a character that engages the reader’s interest, and perhaps even elicits sympathy?

9. There are two major secondary characters in Out: Anna, who loves Satake, and Kazuo, the Brazilian factory worker infatuated with Masako. Do they see something that the other characters, including Satake and Masako themselves, cannot see? Is it significant that both of them are émigrés, raised in non-Japanese traditions?

10. Why does Kirino present the climactic confrontation between Masako and Satake from both their points of view? What does this dual perspective reveal about the psychology of violence?

11. Throughout the book, people are struck by Masako’s coldness and the darkness that seems to surround her. Does the final scene offer satisfactory answers to the puzzle?

12. Kirino draws a grim picture of life in contemporary Japan. How are the points she makes unique to Japanese society? Are there any parallels to American society?

13. In an interview, Kirino remarked, “I don’t think I exclusively tell stories of women criminals. However, being a woman in this society is mainly an anonymous existence. I don’t think the fact that . . . women are nameless and overlooked is a good thing. [JapaneseReview.Net]. Would you characterize Out as a feminist novel?

14. Are the graphic descriptions of dismemberment and sex in Out excessive? Are they included merely to shock the reader, or are they essential to the plot and our understanding of the characters?

15. What is the significance of the novel’s title? In addition to escaping detection, how does the need to get out apply to Masako and the others? Which of the characters succeeds?

Suggested Readings

Li Ang, The Butcher’s Wife; Simon Brett, A Shock to the System; John Connolly, Every Dead Thing; Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold; Josephine Hart, Damage; Stephen King, Rose Madder; Peter Lovesey, On the Edge; Sujata Massey, The Samurai’s Daughter; Val McDermid, A Place of Execution; Haruki Murakami, After the Quake; Ruth Rendell, The Babes in the Wood; Donna Tartt, The Secret History; Barbara Vine, Grasshopper.

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