Hmmm, a puzzling novel this one. I don’t think I would ever have picked up Natsuo Kirino’s book ‘Grotesque’ if it hadn’t been the latest Book Group novel, though it does have quite a good cover and I do really enjoy Japanese and Chinese fiction so maybe somewhere along the line I would have. From what we had been told by the blurb was that this was a dark gritty crime novel about the murder of two prostitutes in Tokyo, there would be sex, murder and mystery all told by the bitter sister of one of the prostitutes, and it sounded really interesting. In reality, well…
I would not put this in the crime section of a book store, but then I am not a fan of putting everything in to pigeon-holes, pretty much from the start you are told who the murdered of one of the girls and probably the other, so there is really no mystery to that part. The mystery is finding out the truth in the differing stories as the book goes along.
I would say this is a fiction novel that happens to have murder in it. So, what about the story? Yuriko and Kazue, two prostitutes, have been murdered in Tokyo; they are linked, not just by the murderer but also by a school and by Yuriko’s nameless older sister. The novel tells of the sister’s childhoods then their time at Q School and eventually moves to the order. I have to be honest the school part bored the hell out or me, it just went on and on and was then told by both sisters which I understood was to show their truer characters but even the author writes as one of the characters ‘these words may drag’ and at another point with some letters says the same, is this a clever way of disguising the fact that the author knows that some of the book is aware that the story is going on and on?
Other than in these occasional parts the writing style is fantastic which made me persevere with the book as I did enjoy Natsuo’s novel. The book is told in several parts, first two parts by the vile bitter sister cover their childhood and the present time not long after the murders, from childhood Yuriko is a stunning girl, something that makes her sister bitter, distant and hateful towards her. We then have Yuriko’s diaries a tale of incest (which seems to be a common theme in the book and if you took it as a true reflection of Japan could appear a high concern) and how she uses her looks to get ahead in life, and what happens once they fade. Then follows the trial and statements of the accused murderer, his story of how he ended up in Japan illegally after fleeing China. Then the other prostitute Kazue’s diaries, her tale I actually found the saddest and most desperate, how she want from a high flying student, to high flying business woman who has to resort to selling her body for money on the side, before the conclusion. Bizarrely what I liked with this book is that all the characters are awful and yet its still makes you read and you find your enjoying how awful they are to one another. Maybe thats just me?
So I think this is much less a crime novel and much more a novel about Japanese culture and also the state of the society as a whole today, the selection process of schools, and their hierarchy that continues into adult life. It is also a deep look into the female psyche and how what happens in your youth and how you are raised and treated can lead you become the person you are, and in the case of some how it has nothing to do with it at all. I found that side of the book fascinating. It really is a rollercoaster book of highs and lows. It also looks at how women are treated in Japan.
This made the book more interesting and made you read on so I guess there was a sense of mystery, sadly the ending with its ‘ghosts’ and ‘visions’ – I wont give the ending away – is slightly, no is, a let down. However that bizarrely hasn’t put me off the author, I want to give her first novel (which has won awards galore) ‘Out’ a read at some point. See like I said a puzzling novel this one.