This is by far one of the strangest books I’ve read in years.
A crime thriller in which the accomplice is the protagonist rather than the killer, in which the crime itself almost disappears into the background, and in which a country, Japan, takes on a significance all of its own.
The tale seems rather straightforward at the start.
Yayoi, a young Japanese housewife is living a difficult life raising two small children and working the night shift in a boxed lunch factory outside of Tokyo.
When she discovers that her drunken, wayward husband Yamamoto has squandered their life savings gambling and pursuing a beautiful Chinese hostess, a violent rage is unleashed within her and she strangles him.
So far, so ordinary.
It’s what happens next that makes this book so intriguing and compelling.
Realising what she was done, she confides in her colleagues and secures their help in disposing of Yamamoto’s body.
So it is that Yamamoto is duly dismembered, his remains bagged and the bits and pieces dumped unceremoniously around Tokyo.
Gruesome as this all is however, we’re not asked to contemplate the morality or the horror of the crime.
Yamamoto had it coming to him, seems to be the opinion that Kirino fosters within us, and passing judgement on Yayoi or even dwelling too long on the murder at all seems somehow irrelevant.
What matters is the energy that is released as a result of the murder. It is the catalyst for all else that follows.
For Yayoi herself, it manifests itself as a release, as an opportunity to free herself from a dead marriage and finally contemplate the future. Indeed, it is almost a liberation. Whatever happens to her after this, is of her own making, and that in itself, seems reward enough, reason enough, for her to justify her crime to herself and carry on without remorse.
For two of the accomplices, Yoshie and Kuniko, their role in dismembering and disposing of the body, is nothing more than an opportunity to earn some cash and to respectively free themselves from the demands of family responsibility and the burden of irresponsible debt. Life it seems is bad enough and complicated enough, that adding a little dismemberment to it all, seems about par for the course, a little bit of financial good luck even
But it is Masako though that is the real subject of it all.
She may not be the murderer, but her reaction to the crime and her level headed response as to how to deal with it, makes her strangely more responsible somehow, for all that transpires.
The murder and its aftermath unleashes a latent strength within her that is at once disturbing as it is admirable.
We want her to succeed and come out of it all unscathed, but at the same time, there is something a little terrifying about her that unsettles us.
It also unsettles and intrigues Satake, a “yakuza” gangster and killer who becomes unwittingly caught up in Yayoi’s crime.
When pieces of Yamamoto turn up in a Tokyo park, Satake is suspected of the crime and as a result loses his profitable night club and casino.
Upon his release he vows to seek out the real killers and exact his revenge.
What follows though, is no simple cat and mouse chase.
Kirino delves deep into Satake’s character, exposing the disturbing psychopath that lies beneath the flash, gaudy yakuza exterior, to reveal a man even more frightening and repressed than his persona could ever suggest.
The attraction and mutual recognition between Masako and Satake, therefore seems inevitable and Kirino weaves a tight and suspenseful tale leading up to the final confrontation between the two.
And meanwhile, through all of this runs the melancholy spectre of Japan itself.
I don’t believe this book could ever have been set in any other place.
Her addiction to high-end, western designer products, and the debt that she accumulates in pursuit of the latest trinket and face cream, is depicted in a very unsympathetic, almost gross fashion.
While her attempts to consume her way out of loneliness and drudgery could be viewed as a rather universal condition in westernised societies, with Kuniko, riding around in her German car, dressed in her French clothes seems to render her life not just devoid of meaning but even of context.
She seems garishly out of place and quite ridiculous. Her weaknesses seem to demand she be punished in the end, if only for the simple reason that they make her un-Japanese. When she dies, it’s almost a relief.
And then, at the opposite end of the spectrum stands Masako. Strong and resolute and cold. Almost masculine in her resolve and cool headedness.
An intelligent woman who has had to suffer the oppressive “maleness” of Japan. A misongynism that even her own husband and son seem to be stifled by. A maleness which is suffocating their family life, which keeps Masako and her husband in separate beds, which renders her son, literally speechless, which forces her to take a menial job on the night-shift. The weight of it all barely bearable. You read about Masako and catch a glimpse of those strange aspects of Japan.
The robotic workers tied to their companies and heading to early heart attacks, the hikikomori teenagers refusing to come out of their rooms, who hide away from the world, the sexless marriages and the twilight world of hostesses and gambling.
Masako seems to embody all of this. A Japan that is as intriguing as it is incomprehensible and terrifying. A Japan that makes Masako more human, more sympathetic. You can imagine, if she were to take herself out of the country she would be someone else, that it’s Japan that has made her so cold.
Even Satake himself, seems thoroughly Japanese. For years he has suppressed violent sexual urges under a flash exterior which is itself overtly masculine and intimidating.
His seething, quiet rage, his suppressed sexual expression, his psychopathic nature is like an undercurrent throughout the whole book. A metaphor for the frustration that you feel could be bubbling up within the whole country, just waiting to erupt.
Satake is terrifying, repulsive, intimidating, intriguing, confusing, enigmatic, attractive, for the simple reason that Japan itself embodies all these self-same qualities.
Put simply, he IS Japan.
It’s these insights into the country itself which take this book beyond a simple classification of “crime thriller”.
True, Natsuo Kirino is currently hailed as “the queen of Japanese crime” (and on the basis of this book, it’s easy to see why) but what she offers in terms of a glimpse into the Japanese psyche puts her beyond categorisation. Quite simply, this book is in a league of its own.