Out is a gruesome, feminist Japanese thriller written by Natsuo Kirino. What a choice during a week when my circle of friends is all talking about women who experience sexual assault! It’s also a great representation of the genre from one of Japan’s pre-eminent female authors.

Out isn’t a whodunit. It’s more of a nail-biter about how a group of ordinary women cope when thrown into gruesome and extraordinary circumstances. One of the group, who all work together in a box-lunch factory, has an unhappy marriage. The night after Yayoi’s husband punches her in the gut, she strangles him.

As unsettling as this is, Kirino is only beginning. Now Yayoi must find help to get rid of the body. Never once does she think, “oh hey, I should call the police and tell them I was abused and killed him in self-defense.” So, that gives you an idea of the male-centric culture Kirino writes about. Instead, Yayoi asks her enigmatic friend Masako for help.

Masako is a cool customer. But she can’t do this alone, so she ropes the rest of the group into the plot. Yoshie is the “Skipper” on the factory line, but in the body disposal she becomes an underling. Her life is particularly awful, and somehow the intrigue offers her an escape, no matter how gross.

The group also has a flaky, immature member, called Kuniko. She’s a “weakest link” character that you just know is going to ruin everything for the group. But that’s what Kirino does to keep the plot interesting, and absolutely twisted.

My conclusions

Out is intense and disturbing. It’s not for the faint of heart. I spent many pages reading, while my internal voice was saying “ewwwww.” But once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Kirino creates unforgettable characters, all thrown into the scumbucket of murder and crime.

Kirino also spends substantial time on each woman’s back story. We learn about how Yayoi and her husband started dating. Then Kirino details the back-breaking caregiving Yoshie does for her mother-in-law, and all about her feckless daughters. Masako’s family is no better, with a husband and son who expect her to do everything for them but don’t speak one word in return. Kuniko’s absurd life is spent alternately shopping and dodging loan sharks.

All that back story was incredibly depressing. But somehow the grisly task at hand isn’t nearly as appalling as the life these women lead. There’s a lot of insight into present-day Japanese culture. And none of it is pleasant.

All told, this was a fascinating, rubbernecker book. So horrible I couldn’t look away, even though all I wanted was to be finished and move to a less disturbing book.