Ordinary housewives by day, Masako Katori, Kuniko Jonouchi, Yoshie Azuma, and Yayoi Yamamoto are graveyard shift workers at a boxed lunch factory in Tokyo suburb at night. Published in 1997, Out by Natsuo Kirino (translated by Stephen Snyder) won the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction in Japan in 1998, and is the story of these four women.
"From midnight until five-thirty without a break, she had to stand at the conveyor belt making boxed lunches. For a part-time job, the pay was good, but the work was backbreaking. More than once, when she was feeling unwell, she'd stopped here in the parking lot by the thought of the hard shift ahead. But this was different, this feeling of aimlessness. As she always did at this moment, she lit a cigarette, but tonight she realized for the first time that she did it to cover the smell of the factory."
~Out, Natsuo Kirino
For various reasons, Masako, Kuniko, Yoshie, and Yayoi work the night shift at the factory. After one of them suddenly kills her abusive husband, the other women help her, and begin their descent into Japan's dark underworld. Although humorous at times, the novel explores the relationships between these women, and paints a dark portrait of marriage and family life. The author brings these characters and others to life through her use of detail and understanding of personality and psychology. This novel emphasizes the role of appearance for women (and for men, to a lesser extent). Appearance seems to determine the jobs that they get, as well as the way they're treated by others. Yayoi is bullied at work by some of the other women for being too attractive, but she is also protected to an extent by Masako. (There's a lot more I could say here--I am barely scratching the surface.)
Out is an unbelievably engaging thriller. Crime fiction isn't my usual genre, but once I started reading it, I was hooked and couldn't put it down. The images conjured up in this book are vivid and haunting, and some are quite horrific. I envisioned the workers walking part of the way to the factory during the damp, shadowy nights, and much more gruesome scenes. This is a story I won't be able to forget!
I read Out for the Japanese Literature Reading Challenge 4, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. Previously I read and reviewed Real World, also written by Natsuo Kirino. I don't think I'll read Kirino's Grotesque, though, because I think I'd find it too disturbing.
For other reviews of Out, please visit Dolce Bellezza and The Reading Life.