Tuesday, October 28, 2008


by Natsuo Kirino
Translated from the Japanese by Rebecca Copeland
Fiction/Crime, 2003 (Japan), 2007 (English translation)
Vintage UK, trade pb, 466 p.
WINNER - Izumi Kyoka Literary Award, 2003
Two prostitutes are murdered in Tokyo.
Twenty years previously both women were educated at the same elite school for young ladies, and had seemingly promising futures ahead of them.
But in a world of dark desire and vicious ambition, for both women, prostitution meant power. Grotesque is a masterful and haunting thriller, a chilling exploration of women’s secret lives in modern day Japan.
It felt like it took me forever to read this! Thank goodness for the Read-a-thon or who knows, it may have taken me the whole month! I really enjoyed her first book to be translated into English, Out, so I had high hopes for this, her second work to appear in English. Unfortunately, for me, it just doesn’t compare. I simply found the pace too slow and the narrative a bit long-winded. It did pick up a bit when the narration changed for awhile part-way through, but it slowed down again once it returned to the main narrator. The majority of the story revolves around her remembering years past when she went to school with both of the women who later became the two prostitutes that were murdered. There is a hint of a mystery but the murders are really just the context for the reminiscing and the framework for analysing the role of women in modern-day Japan.
Professor Kijima wrote about the intensification of the individual’s sense of self and the changes in the shape of life-forms and such, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Mitsuru and Yuriko and Kazue didn’t mutate; they simply decayed. A biology professor certainly ought to be able to recognize the signs of fermentation and decay. Isn’t he the one who taught us all about these processes in organisms? In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water. (p. 318)
I also never came to like any of the characters, which isn’t a requirement for me to enjoy a book, but I also didn’t care enough for there to be any sense of drama about their lives or demise either. The reasons, or perhaps the social pressures that led them to follow the paths they chose, are real enough but oh so depressing. A week after finishing it and the characters are haunting me a little, but thinking about them just leaves me feeling blue. I realise Kirino seems to be making a statement about the inequality of the social hierarchy in Japan but it didn’t make for a very thrilling or enjoyable read.

As for the translation of Grotesque, there were a few times, due to the way she chose to describe something, that I was very aware that I was reading a translation but overall it wasn't too bad. The copyright page says “Originally published in a somewhat different form in Japan…” though which makes me wonder how and why it was changed and whether that has contributed to my lukewarm enjoyment of the novel.

I’m still curious about her most recent book to be translated, Real World, and perhaps I’ll like it more since I know not to expect much suspense next time. And there seems to be a fourth book that has been translated, What Remains, and that was supposed to be released this year but doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. The topic is pretty dark and disturbing, about a kidnapped child held captive for a year, but it sounds intriguing too. Like something Joyce Carol Oates would write about. I hope it reappears at some point. I also found that Kirino has apparently written an installment for the Canongate Myth Series, to come out next year, which I’d be interested in reading. So even though I wasn’t crazy about this one, I do want to try again. Out really was that good!

Author's website
Review in The New York Times
Review at Mystery Ink

My Rating: 2.5/5
*originally posted at In Spring it is the Dawn


Princess Haiku said...

You might like a book called "Snakes and Earrings" if you liked this.

Mark David said...

Grotesque really is a marvelously-twisted book, quite disturbing but undeniably well-written. Sadly I just couldn't get myself to finish the story as soon as notes of pedophilia emerged on the story.

I did however finished reading Kirino's third English-translated work, Real World, last month. I even wrote a review about it on my blog.