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Out    by Natsuo Kirino order for
by Natsuo Kirino
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2003 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Out is a psychological noir thriller, set in the Tokyo suburbs of Japan (seamlessly translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). The novel won Japan's top Mystery award, and is also a 2004 Edgar Award nominee. It starts slowly - initially with the feel of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment - but evolves into a unique tale of how four damaged, despairing women (and one broken man) react to a situation of extreme stress. All but one fall by the wayside.

The four women work nights, part-time on a factory assembly line making boxed lunches. Masako Katori is a strong woman who has lost her way in life, with a husband coccooned in his own depression, and a seventeen-year-old son who has 'given up both education and conversation'. Thirty something Kuniko Jonouchi is selfish and flamboyant, the ultimate consumer, financially overwhelmed, taking on loan shark debts to pay interest on purchases she will never be able to afford. 'Skipper' Yoshie Azuma is a widow in her mid fifties, subjugating her needs to others, as she cares for a bedridden, ungrateful mother-in-law, and funds two daughters who only take advantage of her. Yayoi Yamamoto is a pretty, shallow young mother, whose husband has begun to beat her and has gambled away their joint savings.

The pressure begins to build after Yayoi impulsively kills her husband and enlists Masako's help in avoiding the consequences. Not quite sure why she agrees, Masako nevertheless disposes of the body (she decides to 'cut him up and throw away the pieces'), bullying a reluctant Yoshie into helping (Kuniko's nosiness and greed lead her to inveigle herself in events and almost bring a disastrous end to the amateur criminals' activities). Soon they're all 'riding downhill with no brakes', waiting to crash. The weakest crumbles first, pulling in other players to the already large cast of characters in on the secret, resulting in a situation that is at times almost farcical. But while the police do investigate Yayoi, their attention is soon fixed on the gambling club's owner, Satake, who's already served time for murder.

Eventually, Masako realizes that in creating a situation which exposed Satake to the police, the women 'woke up a monster'. He comes after them, one by one, fixated by obsession with his own past, and after vengeance. Masako wins some help from a full-time worker at the factory, of mixed Japanese and Brazilian descent. But ultimately she's on her own, dealing with her own inner demons as well as a living external one. In coping, this damaged woman shows samurai steel at her core, as the novel comes full circle to a satisfying ending. I highly recommend Out as an engrossing thriller, unique in the genre.

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