I first came across Natsuo Kirino’s work with her brilliant novel, Out, and have since read Real World, which was quite good but couldn’t match up to Out. Kirino’s novels focus on the dark side of Japanese society and put their emphasis on women trying to survive in this often gritty and brutal world. When faced with Grotesque I was curious to see if it could match up to the previous two books.
Grotesque is a series of first person accounts tied together by our unnamed narrator. She has seen her younger sister, Yuriko, and a former school friend Kazue Sato both murdered by a man named Zhang within the space of a year. Yuriko and Kazue are similar in that they were both prostitutes and died in the same way. Our narrator reflects on their deaths and takes us back to the days when the three women were at Q High School in Tokyo and how events there led up to the tragedies of the present.
Our narrator is clearly a bitter woman, a self-proclaimed virgin, with no interest in men though with a fascination of what her children would look like if she did sleep with different men. Both the narrator and Yuriko have a Japanese mother but a white Caucasian father and the family live in Switzerland at one stage, with the narrator managing to stay in Japan for her studies. While the narrator is plain, Yuriko is startlingly beautiful, appearing more western than Japanese and this makes everyone naturally drawn to her, much to the narrator’s discontent. From a young age, Yuriko relies on her beauty and when she manages to get into Q High School with her sister it is an uncomfortable time for the narrator who just becomes “Yuriko’s older sister”, with no one bothering to learn her name, their focus purely on Yuriko. Yuriko partners up with a fellow student Kijima who begins pimping her to the other students. Yuriko isn’t concerned. Not only does she earn good money but she enjoys sex with all the students, the feeling of power it gives and being desired.
At Q High School, the narrator becomes friends with two girls – the best in the class Mitsuru and Kazue Sato. Our narrator comes to despise each and every character we are introduced to but it’s not all one way traffic. The novel breaks from the narrator’s account to give us extracts from the journal of Yuriko, we also hear an account of the murderer Zhang who fled poverty in China with his sister for a new life in Japan, and finally there is the journal of Kazue Sato. While Yuriko was naturally pre-disposed towards prostitution, Kazue is somewhat different. She works in an office by day and at night takes to the streets in search of clients. This dual life is exhausting and Kirino leaves out no details of Sato’s acquaintances and the myriad of acts she has to perform for increasingly less money as she becomes older and less desirable. Kazue and Yuriko cross paths on the streets and even Yuriko, at the time of her death, has lost much of her beauty and is willing to sleep with men for measly sums of money. The tragedy is that Yuriko is not only aware of how dangerous her profession is but she welcomes the idea of her end.
Grotesque isn’t a crime novel, which Kirino is known for but a fascinating series of character studies. It’s almost like reading several novels in one go such is the difference in the narratives. The characters are not particularly likable. The narrator is bitter, twisted and unreliable, while Yuriko’s account won’t make you feel pity either. Zhang’s story is tragic as he flees China but this novel is full of characters that are not necessarily honest so it’s difficult to be sure who is telling the truth. Hearing everyone’s version of events is what makes it fascinating. For me, this is as good as, if not better, than Out.
Grotesque is a gritty novel but contains an intriguing group of characters with some unpleasant stories to tell. Sibling rivalry, teenage crushes, bullying, sex, violence, murder, incest, it’s all here and Kirino doesn’t shy from depicting the darkest side of society. While some of these themes may not appeal to all readers I found Kirino’s novel to be a great read from start to finish.
(Book source: reviewer’s own purchase)