Natsuo Kirino made a spectacular fiction debut on these shores with the publication of Edgar Award-nominated Out (“Daring and disturbing . . . Prepared to push the limits of this world . . . Remarkable”—Los Angeles Times). Unanimously lauded for her unique, psychologically complex, darkly compelling vision and voice, she garnered a multitude of enthusiastic fans eager for more.
In her riveting new novel Grotesque, Kirino once again depicts a barely known Japan. This is the story of three Japanese women and the interconnectedness of beauty and cruelty, sex and violence, ugliness and ambition in their lives.
Tokyo prostitutes Yuriko and Kazue have been brutally murdered, their deaths leaving a wake of unanswered questions about who they were, who their murderer is, and how their lives came to this end. As their stories unfurl in an ingeniously layered narrative, coolly mediated by Yuriko’s older sister, we are taken back to their time in a prestigious girls’ high school—where a strict social hierarchy decided their fates—and follow them through the years as they struggle against rigid societal conventions.
Shedding light on the most hidden precincts of Japanese society today, Grotesque is both a psychological investigation into the female psyche and a classic work of noir fiction. It is a stunning novel, a book that confirms Natsuo Kirino’s electrifying gifts.
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Natsuo Kirino, born in 1951, is the author of sixteen novels, four short-story collections, and an essay collection. She is the recipient of six of Japan’s premier literary awards, including the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Out, the Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature for Grotesque, and the Naoki Prize for Soft Cheeks. Her work has been published in nineteen languages worldwide; several of her books have also been turned into movies. Out was the first of her novels to appear in English and was nominated for an Edgar Award. She lives in Tokyo.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: A Chart of Phantom Children
Whenever I meet a man, I catch myself wondering what our child would look like if we were to make a baby. It’s practically second nature to me now. Whether he’s handsome or ugly, old or young, a picture of our child flashes across my mind. My hair is light brown and feathery fine, and if his is jet black and coarse, then I predict our child’s hair will be the perfect texture and color. Wouldn’t it? I always start out imagining the best possible scenarios for these children, but before long I’ve conjured up horrific visions from the very opposite end of the spectrum.
What if his scraggly eyebrows were plastered just above my eyes with their distinctive double lids? Or what if his huge nostrils were notched into the end of my delicate nose? His bony kneecaps on my robustly curved legs, his square toenails on my highly arched foot? And while this is going through my mind, I’m staring holes in the man, so of course he’s convinced that I have a thing for him. I can’t tell you how many times these encounters have ended in embarrassing misunderstandings. But still, in the end my curiosity always gets the best of me.
When a sperm and an egg unite, they create an entirely new cell—and so a new life begins. These new beings enter the world in all kinds of shapes and sizes. But what if, when the sperm and the egg unite, they are full of animosity for each other? Wouldn’t the creature they produce be contrary to expectation and abnormal as a result? On the other hand, if they have a great affinity for each other, their offspring will be even more splendid than they are. Of that there can be no doubt. And yet, who can ever know what kind of intentions a sperm and an egg harbor when they meet?
It’s at times like these that the chart of my hypothetical children flashes across my mind. You know the kind of chart: the sort you would find in biology or earth science textbooks. You remember them, don’t you, the kind that reconstructs the hypothetical shape and characteristics of an extinct creature based on fossils discovered deep in the earth? Almost always these charts include full-color illustrations of plants and beasts, either in the sea or against the sky. Actually, ever since I was a child I was terrified of those illustrations because they made the imaginary appear real. I hated opening those textbooks so much, it became my habit to search out the page with those charts first and scrutinize them. Perhaps this proves that we are attracted to what frightens us.
I can still remember the artist’s re-creation of the Burgess Shale fauna. Derived from the Cambrian fossils discovered in the Canadian Rockies, the chart is full of preposterous creatures swimming around in the sea. The Hallucigenia crawls along the sediment on the ocean floor, so many spines sticking out of its back you might mistake the creature for a hairbrush; and then there’s the five-eyed Opabinia curling and contorting its way around rocks and crags. The Anomalocaris, with its giant hook-shaped forelimbs, prowls through the dark seas in search of prey. My own fantasy chart is close to this one. It shows children swimming through the water—the bizarre children I have produced from my phantom unions with men.
For some reason I never think about the act that men and women perform to produce these children. When I was young my classmates would make fun of boys they didn’t like by saying things such as, “Just the very idea of touching him makes my skin crawl!” But I never thought about it. I would skip the part about the sex act and go right to the children and the way they would turn out. Perhaps you can say I’m a little peculiar in that regard!
If you look closely you’ll notice that I’m “half.” My father is a Swiss national of Polish descent. They say his grandfather was a minister who moved to Switzerland to escape the Nazis and then died there. My father was in the trade business, an importer of Western-style confections. His line of work might sound impressive, but in fact the products he imported were poor-quality chocolates and cookies, nothing more than cheap snacks. He might have been known for these Western-style sweets, but when I was growing up he never once let me eat one of his products.
We lived very frugally. Our food, clothes, and even my school goods were all made in Japan. I didn’t go to an international school but attended Japanese public elementary schools. My allowance was strictly supervised, and even the money allotted for household expenses fell short of what my mother felt was adequate.
It wasn’t so much that my father decided to spend the rest of his life in Japan with my mother and me. He was just too miserly to do otherwise. He refused to spend a single cent unnecessarily. And he, of course, was the one who determined what was and wasn’t necessary.
To prove my point, my father kept a mountain cabin in Gunma Prefecture where we spent the weekends. He liked to fish and just put his feet up while he was there. For the evening meal it was our custom to have bigos, prepared just the way he liked it. Bigos is a Polish country-style stew made of sauerkraut, vegetables, and meat. My Japanese mother hated fixing it, of that there can be little doubt. When my father’s business failed and he took the family back to Switzerland, I hear my mother cooked Japanese white rice every night and my father scowled each time she set it on the table. I stayed behind in Japan by myself, so I can’t be sure, but I suspect that was my mother’s revenge on my father for his bigos—or, on second thought, for his stingy selfishness.
My mother told me that she once worked for my father’s company. I used to indulge in romantic visions of a tender love blooming between the young foreign owner of a small company and the local girl who worked for him. But in fact, as the story goes, my mother had been married before, and when that didn’t work out she returned home to Ibaraki Prefecture. She worked as a maid in my father’s house, and that is how they met.
I had wanted to ask my mother’s father to give me more details, but now it’s too late. He’s senile and has forgotten everything. In my grandfather’s mind, my mother is still alive and remains a cute little girl in middle school; my father, my younger sister, and I do not even exist.
My father’s Caucasian, and I suppose you could describe him as small-framed. He isn’t particularly attractive, but he isn’t ugly either. A Japanese person who met my father would have a difficult time trying to pick him out on a European street, that much is certain. Just as all “Orientals” look the same to whites, to an Oriental, my father was just your typical white man.
Shall I describe his features? His skin is white with a ruddy touch. His eyes are memorable for being a faded, mournful blue. In a flash they can gleam with cruel intensity. From a physical standpoint his most attractive feature is his shiny brown hair with its brilliant golden luster. It’s now gone white, I suppose, and balding at the crown. He wears somber-hued business suits. If you ever see a middle-aged white man wearing a beige button-up raincoat even in the dead of winter, that would be my father.
My father’s Japanese is good enough for an average conversation, and there was a time when he loved my Japanese mother. When I was little he would always say, “When your dad came to Japan he planned on going home as soon as he could. But he was struck by a bolt of lightning that left him paralyzed and unable to return. That lightning was your mother, you know.”
I think it’s the truth. Well, I think it was the truth. My father and mother fed my sister and me on a diet of romantic dreams just as though they were giving us candy. Gradually the dreams wore thin, until in the end they wasted away to nothing. I’ll tell that story in due course.
The way I saw my mother when I was little and the way I see her now are completely different. When I was little I was convinced that there wasn’t a woman more beautiful than she in all the world. Now that I’ve grown up, I realize that she was just average-looking, and not particularly attractive even for a Japanese. Her head was large and her legs short; her face was flat and her physique poor. Her eyes and nose crowded her face for space, her teeth stuck out, and she had a weak character. She yielded to my father in everything.
My father controlled my mother. If my mother ever talked back he would lash out at her with a volley of words. Mother was not smart; in fact, she was a born loser. Oh? Do you think I’m being too critical? It never even occurred to me. Why am I so unforgiving when it comes to my mother? Let’s just keep that question in mind as we go along, shall we?
The one I really want to talk about is my sister. I had a sister who was a year younger than me. Her name was Yuriko. I have no idea how best to describe her, but if I were to come up with one word, it would be monster. She was terrifyingly beautiful. You may doubt that a person can be so beautiful that she is monstrous. Being beautiful is far preferable to being ugly, after all—at least that’s the general consensus. I wish I could give people who hold that opinion just one glimpse of Yuriko.
People who saw Yuriko were first overwhelmed by how gorgeous she was. But gradually her absolute beauty would grow tiresome, and before long they would find her very presence—with her perfect features—unnerving. If you think I’m exaggerating, the next time I’ll bring you a photo. I’ve felt the same way about her all my life, even though I was her older sister. I have no doubt you’ll agree too.
Occasionally I have this ...
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