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Blimey! I apologise for this unprofessional opening, but it is necessary to convey right at the start that this is a very extraordinary book. I also want to declare my limitations – my knowledge of Japanese literature is tiny, my knowledge of Japanese mystery fiction non-existent. I am unable to say, therefore, whether Natsuo Kirino is in any way a typical writer or is working within genre norms which might exist for Japanese mystery fiction.
Even describing this book is problematic, but it is vital to have a go. The main narrator, Ms Hirata (we never – quite deliberately – learn her first name) is 39 when the story opens, working part-time in a clerical job in social services. The trial is approaching of the man - Zhang Zhe-zhong an illegal Chinese immigrant - accused of murdering two prostitutes, Ms Hirata's younger sister Yuriko, and her old school acquaintance, Kazue Sato.
The opening chapters of the book, narrated by Ms Hirata, are an account of her childhood and, most particularly, her school days at the elite Q High School for Young Women. Ms Hirata and Yuriko are 'halves' - the Japanese name for the off-spring of mixed marriages; their father was Swiss, of Polish extraction, their mother Japanese.
It very soon becomes apparent that Ms Hirata is an extremely unreliable narrator. Her whole life is dominated by her hatred of her stunningly beautiful younger sister, Yuriko. Ms Hirata achieves a brief period of happiness when her parents and Yuriko emigrate to Switzerland and she gets into the Q school, while living with her grandfather, a retired conman who spends his day cultivating bonsais.
This period of calm is soon shattered when her mother commits suicide and Yuriko returns to Japan, going to live with another mixed-marriage couple, the Johnsons. Worse still Yuriko gets into the Q school on the basis of her beauty which is highly prized. At school the sisters' lives become entwined with those of Kazue Sato, who believes that everything is possible through effort and work, Mitsuru, a brilliant pupil who seems to sail through life, and the Kijimas - father is a teacher at the school and son, Takashi, a pupil.
The second narrator we encounter is Yuriko, who has left behind a diary which eventually finds its way to Ms Hirata. Some of the same events are recreated from a very different viewpoint. For the reader, although it has been apparent that the main 'I' narrator is unreliable for some time, this second conflicting viewpoint is obviously, and intentionally, unsettling.
We then switch back to the main 'I' and encounter a few of Kazue's letters from her schooldays along the way. Then we turn to a factual and impersonal transcript of the court proceedings at the trial of Zhang. This is succeeded by Zhang's own 'confession', which is in fact his life-story, telling of his passage from dirt-poor poverty in rural China to Tokyo.
While attending the trial Ms Hirata meets Mitsuru and Takashi Kajima and catches up with their life stories since school, and through Mitsuru that of Kajima Senior; she also comes to acquire the document which takes up the major part of the final quarter of the book, Kazue's diaries. Finally, her (Ms Hirata's) own life takes an unexpected turn, in the only piece of what could be called current action.
At this point it is necessary to dwell for a minute on translation. This book is translated from the Japanese by Rebecca Copeland. The translation seemed very wooden, at times possibly inaccurate (words which made no sense), but it is hard to know how fair this may be. My suspicion is that in the original language the different narratives would have more of their own 'voice' in terms of prose style and inflection.
I hope that this conveys something of the book's form. As to its nature and content it is necessary to issue a warning - this is a very dark book. It may be the darkest I have ever read. This darkness operates on a number of levels.
The sociological - the portrait of Japanese society is dystopic, whether that that be of family, school or business life; a society racked by class where the drive to succeed at whatever cost is matched only by the imperative of social conformity, this is a portrait of developed capitalism in all its horror (in fairness the portrait of Chinese society which Zhang's narrative provides is no better). All the characters are victims of this society but also participate in, and believe, in it.
The narrative - the narratives get darker and darker, starting with Ms Hirata's account of her schooldays and their jealousies, spite and cruelties, Yuriko's diary of her sex-life and prostitution, Zhang's life-story (though this may be the most unreliable of all), but reaching a nadir with Kazue's diaries of her double-life as office worker and low-class prostitute - this latter is almost unreadable at times in its unflinching naturalism.
The psychological - none of these characters is what one would call pleasant! It is, perhaps, in this area that Kirino's brilliance shines most clearly - in particular in Ms Hirata's narrative. She knows that her life and personality has been disfigured and maimed by her hatred of her beautiful younger sister, and is at times honest about the way in which she has nursed and tended her malice. But at other times her narrative is whinily self-justificatory and deluded.
Similarly Kazue's narrative is divided between the rare flash of self-insight and a lot of self-delusion. We see the characters through their own eyes, and then through others, by the use of the various narratives and also by the reports of some confrontational scenes. There is also sexual darkness - not only in the narrative descriptions, but also in the powerful feminist analyses and critiques which emerge intermittently (it should be said that it is impossible to conceive this book having been written by a man).
Overall the impression is one of an existential bleakness, one way beyond the wildest imaginings of most so-called 'noir' writers. Of course this is natural in a book where two of the four narrators are dead and a third on trial for their murder. But the book goes beyond this and only death seems to offer any sort of solution to the problems of existence. The ending, with Ms Hirata once again deceiving herself, emphasises the almost endless capacity for self-deception to which the narrators in their different ways attest.
So how should this book be judged? Extraordinary, magnificent, compelling, spell-binding. All this and more, certainly. But it has its weaknesses. Zhang's narrative, while much more pacy than the others, lacks psychological conviction and seemed to be stereotypical, to some degree. Perhaps this is to be expected as Kirino moves to the male gender and to China, with neither of which does she have the same degree of familiarity she brings to her Japanese female narrators. The all-encompassing bleakness means the book lacks shade, let alone humour - although this may have been lost in translation.
But most crucially for a mystery there is an almost complete absence of plot. Certainly there are stories in abundance - I have only skimmed their surface here - but plot, in any conventional mystery sense, no. So my conclusion would be that while this is an immensely powerful, and in its original language probably truly great, novel it is not a great mystery; we would need to redefine the meaning of the genre to make it so. But if you want to take a journey into the heart of existential darkness then GROTESQUE is the book to read this year.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, March 2008
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