Monday, October 27, 2008


by Natsuo Kirino
Translated from the Japanese by Rebecca Copeland
Fiction/Crime, 2003 (Japan), 2007 (English translation)
Vintage UK, trade pb, 466 p.
WINNER - Izumi Kyoka Literary Award, 2003
Two prostitutes are murdered in Tokyo.
Twenty years previously both women were educated at the same elite school for young ladies, and had seemingly promising futures ahead of them.
But in a world of dark desire and vicious ambition, for both women, prostitution meant power. Grotesque is a masterful and haunting thriller, a chilling exploration of women’s secret lives in modern day Japan.
It felt like it took me forever to read this! Thank goodness for the Read-a-thon or who knows, it may have taken me the whole month! I really enjoyed her first book to be translated into English, Out, so I had high hopes for this, her second work to appear in English. Unfortunately, for me, it just doesn’t compare. I simply found the pace too slow and the narrative a bit long-winded. It did pick up a bit when the narration changed for awhile part-way through, but it slowed down again once it returned to the main narrator. The majority of the story revolves around her remembering years past when she went to school with both of the women who later became the two prostitutes that were murdered. There is a hint of a mystery but the murders are really just the context for the reminiscing and the framework for analysing the role of women in modern-day Japan.
Professor Kijima wrote about the intensification of the individual’s sense of self and the changes in the shape of life-forms and such, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Mitsuru and Yuriko and Kazue didn’t mutate; they simply decayed. A biology professor certainly ought to be able to recognize the signs of fermentation and decay. Isn’t he the one who taught us all about these processes in organisms? In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water. (p. 318)
I also never came to like any of the characters, which isn’t a requirement for me to enjoy a book, but I also didn’t care enough for there to be any sense of drama about their lives or demise either. The reasons, or perhaps the social pressures that led them to follow the paths they chose, are real enough but oh so depressing. A week after finishing it and the characters are haunting me a little, but thinking about them just leaves me feeling blue. I realise Kirino seems to be making a statement about the inequality of the social hierarchy in Japan but it didn’t make for a very thrilling or enjoyable read.

As for the translation of Grotesque, there were a few times, due to the way she chose to describe something, that I was very aware that I was reading a translation but overall it wasn't too bad. The copyright page says “Originally published in a somewhat different form in Japan…” though which makes me wonder how and why it was changed and whether that has contributed to my lukewarm enjoyment of the novel.

I’m still curious about her most recent book to be translated, Real World, and perhaps I’ll like it more since I know not to expect much suspense next time. And there seems to be a fourth book that has been translated, What Remains, and that was supposed to be released this year but doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. The topic is pretty dark and disturbing, about a kidnapped child held captive for a year, but it sounds intriguing too. Like something Joyce Carol Oates would write about. I hope it reappears at some point. I also found that Kirino has apparently written an installment for the Canongate Myth Series, to come out next year, which I’d be interested in reading. So even though I wasn’t crazy about this one, I do want to try again. Out really was that good!

Author's website
Review in The New York Times
Review at Mystery Ink

My Rating: 2.5/5
(#45 for 2008, Japanese Literature Challenge 2, R.I.P. III Challenge, 2nds Challenge, Book Awards II Challenge, Reading Japan Project)

Also reviewed at:
Popin's Lair
Reminder: If you have read and reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. I read Out and enjoyed it as well, so I was very curious about this one. I think I'm going to pass it by. Thanks, Tanabata.

  2. Bummer that it didn't quite live up to Out. That's interesting about the translation note and I wonder what they mean about published in a somewhat different form. I'd like to read it but I won't be rushing out to get it. Especially as Out is still pretty fresh in my mind!

  3. After reading your great review I hesitate to read this book for it's length, the rating you gave and something which is entirely something I need to work on. When a book has 400+ pages and I run into to many slow passages I tend to abandon the book.

    WHAT REMAINS seems interesting.

    Thank-you for this review, it helped me make a choice

  4. Joy - It wasn't nearly as engaging as Out, at least it wasn't for me. I have a feeling you wouldn't enjoy it as much either.

    Iliana - I really wonder too what was changed or left out. I read somewhere that the ending might have been changed, but I don't know why or if that was all.
    And you never know, you may end up liking it. :)

    Sylvie - I think What Remains does sound really interesting. I hope it appears in print sometime. Grotesque wasn't a terrible read, and even though I didn't like the characters, I liked the fact that they were all unreliable as narrators. But I just found it too long and drawn out. Oh well, hopefully the next one will be better.

  5. Great review!

    I was surprised that I didn't like anyone in this Grotesque since there is usually at least one character that I like and I thought there would be, but in the end he turned out just as twisted. Hopefully, your outing with Real World will be better. I liked that one a lot better than Grotesque.

    ~ Popin

  6. How cool that she's written a book for the Canongate Myth Series! I have never read her, but all the great reviews of Out really make me want to pick it up. It's too bad this one didn't live up to it.

  7. Popin - I know what you mean! I was sympathetic to him too for a while, but like you said, in the end he was just as bad! I'm glad to hear that you liked Real World better.

    Nymeth - I haven't read any of the Canongate Myth series, yet, but I'd be very interested to read her take on a Japanese myth. You should definitely read Out sometime if you get the chance.

  8. I am sorry this one didn't live up to OUT. I will probably give it a try still, but I will not expect too much. Thanks for your great review, Nat!

  9. Wendy - It's had some good reviews, along with the not so good, so maybe you'll like it more than I did, especially if you go into it knowing it's not like OUT. I'm still look forward to trying another one.

  10. I just finished this a couple days ago, and I have to agree with everything you said...I'm still feeling a bit down. What a sad, sad book :-(

  11. Janet - It really was depressing, wasn't it? I forget if you've read OUT. If not, you should, it was very different.


Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love hearing from you and I read every single one!

P.S. In an effort to eliminate spam, I moderate all comments, so there will most likely be a delay between when you submit the comment and when it appears on the post. Please let me know if you have any trouble leaving comments here, and you can also chat with me on Twitter, if you prefer. Happy Reading!