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Onyx reviews: Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Until recently, Japanese fiction has been unavailable to Westerners unfamiliar with the language. Over the past several years, though, several Japanese writers, including Miyuki Miyabe and Haruki Murakami, have been translated into English. Being exposed to these voices provides a new perspective on writing and fiction, one that may be vastly different from the traditional English point of view.

Haruki Murakami, despite his captivating flights of fancy, generally depicts Japanese culture as almost indistinguishable from North American. Casual mentions of chopsticks and Japanese cuisine aside, many of his stories could be set anywhere.

Other writers, such as Miyabe and Natsuo Kirino, provide insight into elements of Japanese society that are so vastly different from Western culture as to seem like science fiction. They write with a particular idiom (even when their words are translated) that makes the experience akin to reading a book in a foreign language learned many years ago, in high school perhaps, and practiced little in the interim.

So far, only two of Natuso Kirino's sixteen novels have been published in English. The first, Out, was billed as a crime novel and nominated for an Edgar Award, but it's really about power in relationships. Four women who work together packing bento boxes—Japanese lunches—become enmeshed in each other's lives when one of them murders her abusive husband. When she can't get rid of the body alone, she enlists the help of her coworkers, forever altering the group dynamic. The crime aside, the book succeeds well as a reflection on the position of women in Japanese urban culture. Each woman is seeking a way out of her circumstances, to escape the constraints placed on her because of gender and class.

Her second book translated into English, Grotesque, features a large-as-life Japanese woman's face on the cover, with a ripple effect that distorts the presumably pretty woman into something eerie.

The book's narrator is unnamed, which tells as much about her as anything else. She is forever in the shadow of her younger-by-a-year sister, Yuriko, who is so beautiful it's almost unnatural. The narrator is plain looking, smart and responsible; Yuriko is flighty, stupid and manipulative. She's aware of the disarming effect her beauty has on others, and takes full advantage even at a young age, seducing an uncle, a neighbor and a teacher, and becoming a high-priced call girl all while still in school.

Yuriko's beauty arises in part from a complex genetic equation. Their father is Swiss with Polish ancestry, their mother Japanese. Other Japanese call them "halves" and imply that Yuriko is a mutant. The older sister has a poor relationship with her parents—she regards them with disdain and disgust, and they don't know what to make of her. Though her father can ill afford it, she manages to get accepted into the elite Q High School for Young Women and opts to remain in Japan with her grandfather when the rest of the family "returns" to Switzerland after his business bankrupts.

Their mother is as much out of water in Europe as the father was in Japan and ultimately she commits suicide. The narrator is untroubled by this event—she is so insistently miserable that little truly troubles her except her own plight—and refuses to go to Switzerland for the funeral. When Yuriko returns to Japan, her sister wants nothing to do with her, so Yuriko goes to live with an American family, where she will ultimately seduce the husband, with devastating consequences.

Yuriko's sister is bitter and spiteful. Her admission to Q High was supposed to be her guaranteed track into Q University and a prestigious life. She soon discovers, though, that there is a caste system in Q High—those who were admitted as young children versus those who, like her, shoehorned their way through the door in later years. She will always be an outsider, in part because of her social status and racial impurity, and partly because her society rewards women who are physically attractive and expects them to remain subordinate to men.

When Yuriko flirts her way into Q High and is immediately welcomed into inner circles, the narrator's world crumbles. Her identity vanishes. She becomes nothing more than Yuriko's sister.

The son of the Q's biology professor becomes Yuriko's pimp. Though gay, he's not immune to Yuriko's beauty, and it's never clear who is taking advantage of whom. Sections of the book are told from the older sister's point of view, part from Yuriko's and Kazue's diaries (the kind of diaries that only exist in novels, detailing every moment of their lives like, well, a novel) and part from the perspective Zhang, an illegal Chinese immigrant whose life briefly intersects that of Yuriko and Kazue. He may also have killed his prostitute sister during the trip from China. Their stories don't gibe, and the lies they tell about themselves and each other are often revealed in the others' stories. There is no final arbiter to decide the truth, however, besides the reader—as much as the narrator tries to discount these other perspectives as she presents them.

Though Zhang's story of how he escaped his impoverished village to get to Shanghai, how he lost his sister to a gang and how he became something of a prostitute himself, a kept man, is interesting enough, it seems like an overextended tangent, and the novel might well have been better off without it. The book would have been tighter and more focused at 350 pages instead of nearly 500. Kirino spends a lot of time dissecting the psyches of these women from multiple angles. Beyond a recollection of their tormented years at the highly competitive and ultimately poisonous environment of Q High, there isn't much real plot.

Crime is a central element in Grotesque, but almost incidental to Kirino's story. Readers learn early on that Yuriko and a student the narrator knew from Q High were killed decades later, and that Zhang appears to be responsible for both murders. Both Yuriko and Kazue were prostitutes at the time of their deaths—Yuriko had been one most of her life, whereas Kazue embarked on this second career after a bout of midlife malaise. The two women believed (mistakenly?) that sex was the only route to power in their lives, even though Kazue has an important job in an influential engineering firm. (Her story is based on a real incident from 1997.) Yuriko had lost her looks and was groveling for cheap tricks in a rough part of Tokyo. Her sister, however, almost forty years old, is still bitter and a virgin. Her sex life has been limited to reading Yuriko's diary.

Grotesque is not an easy book. The vitriol-spewing narrator is relentless, and the tragic trajectories of all of the characters do not make for uplifting reading. The author's overindulgences swell the book to epic proportions where judicious editing might have helped the story find more focus.

Even so, it's unlikely that most readers will set the book aside, because the story is as hard to look away from as a car wreck, which is about as apt a metaphor as any for the lives of the women in this novel.

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