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Review by
Mike Philbin
Natsuo Kirino
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0-099-47228-7

Masako Katori; Kuniko Jonouchi; Yoshie Azuma; Yayoi Yamamoto; who are these normal people? Well, they all work the night shift at the local boxed-lunch factory. From midnight until 6 a.m. every 'day' they prepare these meals for the office workers and commuters of downtown Tokyo. It's not much of a life but they work well as a team and they always snatch the best part of the conveyor belt; the easiest jobs, if you will.

These four unassuming women are the heroines of Natsuo Kirino's novel OUT, winner of Japan's top mystery prize and a 300,000 copies bestseller.

When you first begin reading this 500 page book, it seems a little slow - telling the tale of the charmless lives of these industrial monkeys as they fill their hours chucking ingredients into boxed lunches. They're an odd assortment of ages, these women, from an odd assortment of social and family backgrounds.

Masako's teenage son hasn't spoken to her in a year, neither has her husband. Kuniko is so far in debt, yet lives a life of apparent luxury. Yoshie has her ailing grandmother at home, nothing more than a cantankerous and grotesquely smelling baby. Yayoi has just killed her husband on the doorstep of their family home...

Yayoi Yamamoto panics and phones her work colleague Masako Katori and asks if she'll help dispose of the body. To her surprise (and eternal gratitude) Masako says, "No problem."

This is a weird book. You're happily thrumming along in the slow lane of its detailed domestic narrative and then someone throws a house brick onto your windscreen from a passing bridge. You swerve to regain control of the car but something's changed. You're no longer driving the same car. This feeling of metamorphosis continues to haunt the rest of the book and you're never certain what will happen next to whom and why. Yeah, I know that's the aim of most mystery-thriller books but this baby goes much deeper into the human psyche than it needs.

It's not just that there's a murder and there's a mystery involved. In fact, there's not much of a mystery involved. We know who did the murder and we know who's helping dispose of the body, all Yayoi's four most trusted work colleagues. 'Most trusted' might not be the right phrase - each of the four girls has a motive outside the purely charitable and this adds to the tension of will-they won't-they be found out.

Remember the way Columbo use to work? He'd be dogged like a pugnacious fox terrier never letting go of his suspect, grinding out every ounce of patience from his poor victims. Well, the two cops who arrive to investigate aren't in Columbo's league and they shouldn't be. This is a more down to earth story where the police don't always get their man. But the feeling you get from the book is of that absolute unending torture that Columbo brought with him. From before the first half of the book it is excruciatingly nerve-wracking.

The star of the book isn't the story or the characterisation, though the murder and Masako's helping dispose of the body are the focus of the narrative, it is the depth of motivation of each of the seven or so main characters that stands out. There's the seemingly above-board hostess club owner Satake, the flamboyantly-named debt collector Jumonji and the Brazilian immigrant worker Kazuo. You feel these people are really living and breathing in the swirling narrative as they batter like mad against the waves to keep their heads above water. Even the four girls have their own stories to tell while the real story chunters on beside them. It's a great complex read.

It's a sometimes gory book with dismemberment, rape and torture. The depiction of the weight of a dismembered human body and the problems of getting rid of how ever many doubled plastic bin liners worth of human garbage is especially well depicted.

The prolonged build up just piles on mental torture upon death threats and theatrical getaways. The final showdown itself is well worth the wait and you'll be gasping for breath long before you've realised how it's going to end. It sure is a strange ending for this genre of novel. Some might call it a down beat ending but that has never bothered this reviewer and because it has the guts of its conviction right up to the end, I give OUT 5 out of 5 rotting bookworms.

This review copyright 2005 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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