When I picked up this novel by Natsuo Kirino (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder), I thought it was a feminist revenge fantasy—a group of women banding together to fight back against the men who hurt them. Although I have reservations about revenge fantasy, I was kind of in the mood for angry women fighting back. But Out is more complicated than what I expected. And, ultimately, I found it frustrating. So frustrating that I frightened the cat when I threw it across the room after finishing.
I will note now that this is a thriller that relies to some extent on the element of surprise, but I will be discussing the plot in some detail. I will try to be vague about the biggest shocks and twists, but I will dig into the ending near the end of this review. So bear that in mind if you don’t like spoilers.
The main characters in Out are four women who work the night shift in a factory that makes boxed lunches. The work is miserable, but all four women need the work, and they can make more money for less hours working overnight. All four face different types of misery at home, where they are expected to care for others who don’t offer any care or appreciation in return. Yayoi, however, is perhaps the worst off. Her husband has gambled away all their money and has started beating Yayoi.
The revenge element of the plot takes hold when Yayoi, full of rage and fear, strangles her husband with a belt. Not knowing what to do, she calls Masako, the most level-headed of the women, to help her get rid of the body. Masako enlists Kuniko and Yoshie to help her cut up the body and dispose of the parts. From here, the numbing horror of these women’s lives turns into a different kind of horror.
Instead of turning the story into the woman power narrative I expected, Kirino has the four women turn on each other, even as they try to protect each other. They ask Yayoi to pay them for their work, and then they deceive each other over the amounts they’re getting. When parts of the body are discovered and a former colleague of Masako’s figures out what happened, he offers them a chance to turn their skill at dismemberment into a side business. And this creates more opportunities for bickering.
Although I appreciated that Kirino was willing to create unlikable characters, I had trouble with the idea that this is a feminist thriller when the women end up turning on each other the way they do. To be clear, the book doesn’t need to be feminist to be good, and women don’t have to like each other to be feminist, but the deceitfulness seemed to draw on misogynist stereotypes.
Even more frustrating was the book’s characterization of Kuniko. Even when Masako, Yayoi, and Yoshie are not always likable, we’re given lots of reasons to sympathize with them. But Kuniko is consistently presented as a figure of ridicule. She spends too much money and thus is deeply in debt, her husband has abandoned her, she can’t get a better job, she screws up at the body disposal, and she’s fat (THE HORROR!). And, on top of that, her ultimate fate is presented with such cruelty and so little sympathy that I nearly ended up giving up on the book right then.
I didn’t give up. Perhaps I should have. Because there’s another character I haven’t mentioned—Satake. Satake is a club owner and a convicted murderer and rapist. He’s presented early on as someone who has reformed, who regrets what happened but who still has issues with women. On the night that Yayoi killed her husband, Satake was seen beating him up. The police pick him up, but when they can’t pin a murder charge on him, they let him go, but his reputation and his business are shot. And now he’s determined to find the real murderer.
The final chapters of the book present a sort of cat-and-mouse game, with Satake pursuing ringleader Masako. And the final confrontation, well, it infuriated me.
This is a book where women get punished, and that’s nowhere more evident than in the final chapters, where we’re subjected to extraordinarily brutal rapes, presented from the point of view of both the rapist and his victim. And in the end, there’s an attempt to put Masako and Satake on the same moral level. He rapes and murders. She cuts up bodies. THESE ARE NOT THE SAME! But Masako seems to accept that judgment, to see him as her soul mate or some such thing (?!?!?!?!). Because her body responds to him, they are one (?!?!?!?) And when she fights back and wins, she still suffers for it (?!?!?!).
Much of the book focuses on women pushing back against limitations and ending up in an even bigger mess. If I squint, I can see this as commentary on the futility of action in a world where societal expectations of meekness and compliance are so powerful. And perhaps that’s what Kirino was going for. But it builds on so many stereotypes about women and false notions about rape that I cannot accept this even as an expose of malignant patriarchy. It’s possible that as an American, I’m missing some nuance that a Japanese reader would pick up on, but as an American, I can’t recommend this book.