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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Kirino Natsuo

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To purchase Grotesque

Title: Grotesque
Author: Kirino Natsuo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 467 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Grotesque - US
Grotesque - UK
Grotesque - Canada
Grotesque - India
Monstrueux - France
Grotesk - Deutschland
Grotesque - Italia
Grotesco - España
  • Japanese title: グロテスク
  • Translated by Rebecca Copeland

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Our Assessment:

B : ugly and uneven, but often compelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly . 7/3/2007 Karen Karbo
Financial Times . 16/2/2007 David Pilling
The Independent . 9/2/2007 Jane Jakeman
Independent on Sunday . 25/2/2007 Christopher Fowler
The LA Times . 18/3/2007 Christine Smallwood
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/4/2007 Sophie Harrison
San Francisco Chronicle . 25/3/2007 David Cotner
The Telegraph A- 27/3/2007 Benjamin Secher
The Times . 24/2/2007 Alice Fordham
The Washington Post . 27/5/2007 Janice P. Nimura

  Review Consensus:

  Generally fairly favourable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Translated with mixed results by Rebecca Copeland -- the voice of the unlikable narrator swings between pomposity and cliché-laden flippancy -- the story of the girls' murders gets lost in the too-expansive telling." - Karen Karbo , Entertainment Weekly

  • "Grotesque is not without interest. But rather like Kirino’s characters, the reader is in constant danger of being bludgeoned to death." - David Pilling, Financial Times

  • "Beneath this story lie deeper questions: of what drives women to prostitution, of the relationship between the individual and society, as well as unexpected philosophical considerations such as an examination of the sense of self, perhaps paradoxically heightened by being trapped in rigid social conformity. Above all, the book is an exploration of the roles of women in such a hot-house world and of the men who rule it. (...) This is a rich, complex read. Be prepared for a book utterly unlike anything we are used to in crime fiction: a long, densely-written work that resembles a Russian novel more than anything else." - Jane Jakeman, The Independent

  • "Although her language is as spare and unsparing as that of her contemporaries, Kirino is separated from them by a determination to depict the psyches of her female protagonists in overwhelming detail. Her women are studied from every angle; via their relationships with family, each other, the men around them, the food they prepare and their daily working lives. This gradual, merciless exposure has the dual effect of creating emotional involvement with the characters while placing them in the greater context of Japanese society, so that the narrative becomes something other than the mere dismantling of motives behind a crime." - Christopher Fowler, Independent on Sunday

  • "Out was dark, but the plot of Grotesque is buried deep in the gutter. (...) Grotesque is not a thriller, it is an anthropological study. And in this tightly closed system of overdetermined perversity, the book takes on a fantastic quality; characters are more symbol than substance. As each pops up in the others' stories, their self-deceptions become apparent and the truth of their lives and relationships even more muddled." - Christine Smallwood, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) disconcerting stump of a book that fulfills no conventinal expectations. (...) Rebecca Copeland's translation of this bitter tale is respectable, without ever quite dispelling the odd sensation that translated fiction can sometimes produce: that of reading a book with your gloves on." - Sophie Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Grotesque is a vengefully mesmerizing obituary written in the voice of a woman who is often a total stranger to the women she envies. She views their lives through the covetous prism of her shortcomings, angrily re-dissecting memories shot through with corrosive emotions. (...) Of course, much of the narrator's contempt for Yuriko, Q High School and everything involving them can be chalked up to the cruelty of the adolescent girl. But the deftness with which Kirino paints the portrait of this particular Dorian Gray is a crystal-clear insight into the mind of a lunatic. Kirino turns an unerring eye toward the vicious razors of the adolescent female mind." - David Cotner, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Kirino has entrusted her tale to an unreliable, manipulative narrator who couldn't care less about the plot. She gleefully sabotages the story by all but revealing the identity of the double killer in the first few chapters and has little sympathy for any of the protagonists but herself. (...) Grotesque is not so much a crime novel as a brilliant, subversive character study. Kirino's real concerns are social, not criminal; her true villain is "the classist society so firmly embedded in Japan" which pushes her protagonists along the road to prostitution. (...) Despite occasional sags in its overlong fabric, Grotesque is nevertheless a triumph. In its boldness and originality, it broadens our sense of what modern Japanese fiction can be." - Benjamin Secher, The Telegraph

  • "Some of the story is told through the diaries of Yuriko and Kazue, but it is largely the bleak worldview of the nihilistic narrator that informs us of events. As the icy epitome of uncaring rejection she represents a grotesque denial of normal humanity’s affections and hurt. Kirino’s depiction of Japanese attitudes to women is pretty damning." - Alice Fordham, The Times

  • "This is the terrible paradox at the center of Kirino's work: In Japan, to be a monster, a grotesque, can be a kind of liberation. watches the trial of their accused murderer unfold, the narrator's malice turns into a kind of envy of the dead women, who in their sexual freedom flouted the society that rejected them. Grotesque is a powerful indictment of that society, its narrator's spirit "painted with hatred, dyed with bitterness." Kirino's women speak from beneath the lacquered surfaces of traditional Japan, in voices that need to be heard." - Janice P. Nimura, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Grotesque indeed: Kirino Natsuo's picture of contemporary Japan is a mighty twisted one. Her characters are a strange lot, but it's society that has given them a big push towards their destinies.
       The main narrator is a woman who is never named. Now, some two decades later, two of the girls she went to the prestigious Q High School for Young Women with -- Yuriko, her stunningly beautiful younger sister, and classmate Kazue -- have been murdered. Both were working as prostitutes (despite the fact that Kazue also had a good job at a well-known company), and the same man is accused of their murder. The narrator tells her story, and theirs (and, through diaries and letters and court papers, they and others tell theirs as well) and what a bunch of petty, confused, and ugly stories they are.
       The main narrator is the daughter of a Swiss chocolate importer and a Japanese woman. When she was in her teens her parents went to live in Switzerland; having gotten into the Q High School she stayed, going to live with her bonsai-obsessed petty crook grandfather. She was never very attractive, and appears in many ways to be forgettable (another reason her name is never mentioned), while her sister Yuriko was from early on an absolutely stunning beauty. But, as the narrator also notes: "Yuriko had been a monster all her life".
       Grotesque is a book about monstrosity. Yuriko appears to have been naturally born that way; the others are twisted into it -- in large part by Q High School. Mitsuru -- the star student of the narrator's class, who went on to medical school and became a doctor before joining a cult and winding up in jail -- sums Q High School up: "it represents precisely the value system that holds sway in Japan today".
       While talent and hard work are, to some extent rewarded, the hierarchy at the school has little to do with academics. Students who started in the Q school-system at an earlier level are superior to those who joined in later years (such as the narrator, who only went to high school there). Clubs are cliques, and if Kazue is allowed in the figure skating club it's only because they'll take anyone willing to help pay the hefty rink and associated fees -- and it doesn't necessarily mean she'll really get to join in.
       As one teacher notes, looking back on his time there:

     We at Q High School for Young Women espoused an educational tenet that advocated self-sufficiency and a strong sense of self-awareness in our students. And yet, among the girls who have graduated from Q High School for Young Women, there are data to prove that the rate for divorce, failure to marry, and suicide is much higher than that in other schools. [...] (W)e allowed the creation of an environment that was too much of a utopia. Or, to put it another way, we failed to teach our girls the strategies that would enable them to cope with the frustrations of the real world.
       But far from a utopia, the Q High School was, as Mitsuru had it, very much a reflection of the broader Japanese value system. And, yes, that has elements of both the animal kingdom and a superficial politeness and adherence to rules (or rather: appearances). Far from not preparing them, the school thrust them into a 'real world'-environment far too early, leaving them jaded and broken, with no illusions left.
       Certainly these gals -- Yuriko and her sister, Kazue, and Mitsuru -- did not fare well, even as they enjoyed what appears to be considerable success after leaving school (Yuriko never graduated). Kazue and Mitsuru had considerable professional success, and Yuriko was at least a high-class (or at least very expensive) call girl. The narrator did not live up to Q High School expectations, but then she emphatically avoided them, never even trying to succeed in the way the other girls did. But the three success-stories didn't last: two wound up as murdered prostitutes (and Yuriko wasn't doing high-end trade any more at that point), while Mitsuru went to jail.
       A major issue is that talent isn't enough to go on -- unless it's the right talent. The narrator learned even before she came to the Q school that:
Brains and talent will never stand up against a girl who is physically attractive.
       Yuriko is beyond physically attractive -- and on top of that she's sex-obsessed:
I can't deny a man. I'm like a vagina incarnate -- female essence embodied. If I were ever to deny a man, I would stop being me.
       Kazue eventually becomes similarly sex-obsessed, though her lust is of a different nature; among the perversely compelling parts of Grotesque are the accounts of them (especially Kazue) turning tricks, debasing themselves further and further. Sexy it ain't -- but the almost maniacal self-destructive free-fall is fascinating. The world-view behind this isn't pretty either. Yuriko thinks that after twenty years of whoring she has it figured out:
At heart, a man truly hates a woman who sells her body. And any woman who sells her body hates the men who pay her for it. You get two people together with all that hate, somebody's going to kill someone before too long.
       Indeed, perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is how few happy relationships of any sort there are. The narrator's parents divorce (and she isn't even sure the Swiss man she knows as her father is her biological father), and every relationship around her is built on lust or hatred or using the other person. (Her main reason for wanting her grandfather to stay alive is because she'd lose the apartment if he dies -- and he is one of the few people she seems in any way even fond of.) Already in high school the narrator felt: "I hated people in love because people in love betray me". But there's almost no love anywhere, or even much friendship. Instead, it's just a whole lot of nasty people who are, at best, using one another.
       As if the focus on the former Q High School students weren't enough, the murderer also enters the picture, and his lengthy autobiographical confession is yet another chunk of the book. And, yes, this Chinese illegal immigrant also has a backstory, and it also involves quite a bit of ugliness, from domestic poverty (his family apparently literally lived in a cave) to his relationship with his sister (who wound up working as -- you guessed it -- a prostitute).
       It's an awful lot of material, but Kirino and her strong main narrator hold it together quite well. The Lolita-like Yuriko's early success with men, and both Kazue's family when she is a student, and then later her dissatisfied professional life are well-presented. Mitsuru is a more confusing figure (she also comes from a not-up-to-Q-school-standards background, but her academic success seems to overcome that fairly readily), and her fall less convincing. And the murderer's story is probably a bit longer than it needs to be. Still, put all together it's a very bizarre compelling tale.
       There is fundamental unpleasantness to the book, from the willingness of so many of the women to debase themselves by prostituting themselves (and boy do they ever debase themselves), to the dubious philosophy behind it all ("I suspect there are lots of women who want to become prostitutes" Yuriko says, and one suspects Kirino firmly believes that too ...), and there are really no redeeming characters to be found here. Because so many of the characters are more or less psychopathic it's also not entirely convincing as a nation-portrait. Obviously Japanese ways and values help make these women (and men) what they become, but so many of the characters are at least slightly unhinged anyway, making them seem far less than truly representative, from the men who lust after the young teen Yuriko to some of Kazue's johns and certainly the women themselves.
       Ambitious, unwieldy, and one very ugly and wild ride, Grotesque is far from a complete success, but it is a largely gripping read. Dark and sordid stuff which won't be to everyone's taste, it is certainly of some interest.

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Grotesque: Reviews: Kirino Natsuo: Other books by Kirino Natsuo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生; actually: Hashioka Mariko) was born in 1951.

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