Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out is not a recent book. It was published in Japan in 1997 and in English in 2003. This Vintage International edition came out January 2005.

If someone asked me for a one or two word description to help them decide if Out was a book for them,  I would call it feminist noir. A staff member at The Mysterious Bookshop recommended it as excellent noir which the reason I purchased it since I was unfamiliar with the author. I wasn't disappointed.

The setup is simple: physically abused by her husband, Yayoi Yamamoto snaps and strangles him. Panicked, she calls Masako Katori, a co-worker on the boxed lunch assembly line where they both work the night shift. Masako decides they need to dispose of the body and gets two other co-workers, Yoshie Azuma and Kuniko Jonouchi to assist with getting rid of the body while Yayoi builds her alibi. They accomplish the task in a way that is notable for its grisliness and the matter of fact way the women approach it. The improvised plan looks like it could succeed but the extramarital actions of the murdered man and the personalities and habits of the four women make exposure more and more likely. The story takes a turn in the middle that establishes it as solidly noir but also edges it toward thriller.

The women of Out are treated as objects, sometimes valuable objects, but objects nonetheless. Anna, a secondary character who works in a hostess club run by Satake who becomes the nemesis of the four women, come to this awakening with the realization that
Maybe it was the same with men: they wanted women the same way she'd wanted the poodle, and she meant no more to Satake then the dog did to her.
Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko, and Yayoi are victims of men and the rigid society in which they live. They all want out of their current existence. They are treated with indifference or neglect or abandonment or violence in one form or another. They are doing jobs nobody else is willing to do. Masako compares herself to a washing machine run without putting the laundry:
Disolved in a whirlpool, drained, rinsed, and spun dry—it was precisely what they had done to her. A pointless spin cycle, she thought, laughing out loud.
The one act of female solidarity, disposing of the body, doesn't last long, leaving them as much alone at the end as in the beginning.

For me, the strength of Out is in the way the characters are developed, all the characters and not only the four women at the core of the story. The author progressively pulls away layers revealing the person underneath. No one is particularly likable. It is possible to empathize with and come to understand and perhaps relate to these characters but there are none that I liked. The only character that goes through the story as an (mostly) innocent observer is Roberto Kazuo Miyamori, half Brazilian and half Japanese, who works in the same factory as the four women. Alienated from the culture of his Japanese father, Kazu, lonely and desperate to connect with another person, becomes pathetically obsessed with Masako.

I'm still not sure about the ending. Is it positive? Is there hope? If anyone who reads this review has also read the book, please leave a comment with your thoughts on the last 18 pages.

Out is well plotted with excellent character development. I recommended it to readers who can handle noir mixed with some grisly ingredients. The translation by Stephen Snyder reads smoothly with no awkwardness.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Bar on the Seine by Georges Simenon

The Bar on the Seine was originally published in 1931. This Penguin edition, translated by David Watson, came out in 2003.

My reading in early works of crime fiction is woefully inadequate which prompted me to buy some of Georges Simenon's novels about the French police detective Inspector Maigret. This is the first I've read in the series which has 75  novels and 28 short stories published between 1931 and 1972. The Bar on the Seine (originally titled La Guinguette à deux sous) is one of the earlier in the series (no. 11) by this prolific author. Based on the strength of this book, this is a series which I will dip into when I need a quick, interesting, and pleasant read.

In The Bar on the Seine, Maigret visits a condemned man on the eve of his execution. The man, Lenoir, tells Maigret that there are others who should also be awaiting the guillotine and describes a murder he observed when sixteen. True to the code of honor among thieves, he won't give Maigret the name of the murderer but does tell him the name of the bar the man frequents, La Guinguette à deux sous.

Maigret takes a stab at checking out the story but can't find the bar and puts it to the side as he prepares to go on holiday. By chance, while trying on a new bowler hat, Maigret overhears another shopper mention that he will be part of a skit held at La Guinguette à deux sous. Holiday notwithstanding, Maigret follows the man to a rendezvous with his mistress then to his home where he collects his family and they drive off along the banks of the Seine. The man, Basso, and his family are among those who have abandoned the heat of Paris in the summer. When the family unloads at a villa, Maigret goes to a nearby inn.
 He enters to check things out but, in an amusing turn, finds himself pulled into a party of friends who have been vacationing together at the same place for years. Though Maigret is a stranger, he is immediately plied with Pernod and made a participant in the evening entertainment. Now Maigret has to find out who committed murder six years ago.

Maigret follows police investigative procedures but his strength is in observing people. Here he applies his keene mind is sussing out the character of the holiday goers, their relationships and interactions. He even develops a friendship of sorts, with James with whom, back in Paris, he consumes a staggering amount of Pernod.

The story moves at a leisurely, though never plodding, pace as Maigret tries to narrow his list of suspects and balance his desire to join his wife on holiday with his policeman's duty.

If this book is an indication, the Maigret stories hold up well after 70+ years and I recommend them as non-violent and character driven. If you enjoy other books written around the same time, such as Agatha Christie, I'd say that the Maigret stories are a must read.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Tooth and Nailed, Sarah Lotz

My review of Sarah Lotz's Tooth and Nailed is up on my other blog, AfricaScreams. This is her second novel featuring Cape Town lawyer George Allan and his dog and constant companion, Exhibit A. Exhibit A is also the title of the first George Allan novel.