January in Japan: Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

January in JapanInspired by Bellezza’s Japanese literature challenge and Tony’s January month of J-Lit wonders, I have pledged to read more Japanese literature throughout 2014. ¬†I kicked off with Natsuo Kirino, who impressed me so much with her novel of low-wage drudgery and desperation ‘Out’.

However, although the lives of the four women working at a bento factory seemed grim and cheerless, that novel was saved by a certain degree of empathy that we could feel for the protagonists. ‘Grotesque’ is more challenging in that respect, because the characters are uniformly unlikable.

This has been advertised as a crime novel, but crime fiction lovers will barely recognise it as such. It follows none of the conventions of the genre, although it certainly shows a bleak outlook on life as a Japanese woman, so perhaps it could be called a noir of sorts.¬†The novel is structured in eight parts and features four narrators, all equally unreliable. The comparison with Kurosawa’s Rashomon is perhaps inevitable, and, just like in the film, there are no clear answers as to whose account of events is to be trusted or whether the truth will ever be fully known.

The story revolves around the murder of two prostitutes in Tokyo less than a year apart. There is not much focus, however, on finding out who killed them. The murderer, a Chinese labourer called Zhang, has already been arrested and is about to go on trial. He has confessed to killing Yuriko but denies killing Kazue. There is a bit of a mystery about what happened to Kazue, but the main focus of the story is why these two women, who had attended an elite secondary school in Tokyo and seemed destined for promising futures, would end up as the lowliest of prostitutes on the streets of Shibuya.

grotesque (1)The unnamed main narrator also attended the same school as the murdered women. In fact, she is a classmate of classmate of Kazue and the older sister of the glamorous Yuriko. Yuriko and her sister are ‘halfs’, i.e. the product of a mixed marriage. Their father is a Swiss importer of cheap sweets, their mother a Japanese who felt compelled to pander to her husband’s desire for a Polish sauerkraut specialty called¬†bigos, although she hated making it. Yuriko was blessed with almost eerily good looks, but her sister is average at best. Sibling rivalry is a factor in this disturbing psychological study of envy and bitterness, but it is about much more than that. The snobbishness and bullying at the girls’ school and the excessive competitiveness of the Japanese educational system are described with an immediacy which made my stomach turn. The scene with the hand-embroidered Ralph Lauren logo on the socks will stick in my mind for a long time.

While the book offers no explanation for the women’s descent into prostitution, there are numerous chilling descriptions of discrimination against women both in the workplace, as well as the callousness of relationships between men and women (not only the predilection of Japanese men, as the author shows us by introducing a number of domineering and ruthless foreign male characters).¬†The women in the novel have resorted to manipulating their bodies, men and each other in an effort to regain control over their lives, in an effort to become or at least feel important and real.¬†

Natsuo-KirinoThe results are perhaps too painful and grotesque for this reader to sympathise with: I could feel only horrified pity, rather like watching a Greek tragedy or a traffic accident unfold. Yet the author has a deliberately unemphatic style of cold, factual description. Even the graphic scenes of violence or sex do not display colourful fireworks, but instead hint at the profound bitterness of human emotion. ¬†This makes the story perhaps even more devastating, and I can see why her ‘flat’ style has been described as feminist noir. It is difficult to make judgements about her style, however, based on translations, especially when much of her novel has been edited and cut for the purposes of Western consumption (and to allow it to be marketed as crime fiction). For a detailed discussion of the problems of translation, I found this thesis by a student at the University of Oslo truly enlightening.

So, all in all, a bleak novel, with very little hope or humour to redeem it, but a fascinating insight into the darkness beneath the picture-book prettiness of Japan. I would recommend reading it when you have a very strong stomach and/or nerves.

July Reads and Pick of the Month

I haven’t read only crime fiction this month (although, as usual, it does form the bulk of my reading).¬† The reason for that is only partly because there were so many interesting books in other genres on my To Read list.¬† The other reason, of course, is that I am trying to distance myself a little bit from the genre while I am editing my own crime fiction novel.¬† Otherwise I risk including every clever plot device or brilliant scene from each novel I read into my own piecemeal effort – making it even more of a dog’s dinner than it already is!¬† (Can you tell I am going through my ‘down’ phase, where I think every sentence is horrible?)

So here are the books I have read this month.  I have included links if I have already reviewed them, here or elsewhere, and I am also linking to Mysteries in Paradise and their Pick of the Month.

1) So far, so French (or Franco-Swiss), at least in terms of setting.

Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Simenon: Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets

Simenon: Maigret et l’inspecteur Malgracieux (I am planning a special on Maigret for September)

Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

Estelle Monbrun: Meurtre chez Colette (I really wanted to like this one, because I am a Colette fan, but it was disappointing)

Anita Brookner: Hotel du Lac. Precise, elegant, poignant.  Midlife crisis handled with English poise Рheartbreaking.

2) The holiday locations continue with:

Jeffrey Siger: Murder on Mykonos.  Excellent description of the island, of Greek politics and lifestyle in general, good use of suspense, although the ending did feel a bit random.  I especially loved the idea of the local policemen Googling information about serial killers.

Natsuo Kirino: Out (Japan). A shocker Рnot for the faint-hearted.  I will write a post in late August or early September about contemporary Japanese fiction, as this is one of my favourite topics.

Carlos Zanón: The Barcelona Brothers  (review of this will appear shortly on the Crime Fiction Lover website)

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Marina (also set in Barcelona). Mix of genres and stories – this is mystery, ghost story, love story, sci-fi, historical romance. Beautiful imagery and recaptures a vanished world of ruined Barcelona mansions. Reminded me of the nostalgia and luscious detail of ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’.

3) Then we have the familiar stomping ground of London or Cambridge:

Stav Sherez: A Dark Redemption

Robin Webster: The Blues Man. Fast pace, intricate plot, some nice references to blues music and an uncompromising look at the seedy underbelly of London’s drug-dealing and prostitution world.¬† Promised much but under-delivered, I fear.

Alison Bruce: Cambridge Blue.  Loved the setting, loved the young and atypical detective, loved his grandmother (I hope she continues to appear in the next books of the series).

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women.  Not my favourite Pym novel, but her usual wry humour is evident here.

4) And finally, a few American ladies with no criminal tendencies whatsoever:

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (I believe it’s called ‘Bright-Sided’ in the US) – non-fiction, about the relentless promotion of positive thinking in the United States

Alice Baudat: The Wooden Bowl – a review and interview with the author will appear on this blog in September

And the winner is: Stav Sherez.  You can find a detailed review here and an author interview with him here (neither written by me Рbecause the question I would have asked is: what on earth is Stav short for?).  As far as my own thoughts go, I found this book very atmospheric: the author captures the heat and dust of Africa just as well as the grime and rain of London (particularly its lesser known and sleazier parts). Well written, evocative yet parsimonious use of language. And I like the way the two main detectives have complicated backgrounds, yet manage to steer clear of clichéed representation.  If the first of the series is so good, I can hardly wait to see what the rest of them will be like!

And what, you may well ask, has that picture got to do with my July reading?  Nothing, except that I felt as snug as a cat because I got the chance to read so many books this month (not likely to happen again any time soon).