I’ve been meaning to read more Japanese fiction, but nothing quite prepared me for Natsuo Kirino’s twisted tale of female bitterness. It has made a great impact. Brutal and crude, it’s told in a detached manner that verges on the soulless. It’s also a sobering story of three young women fighting for empowerment and recognition in a world where the only accepted currency is beauty. The tale is grotesque; the setting is bleak; there isn’t a single sympathetic character in the whole damn book and yet, despite all of this, Kirino manages to create something completely gripping.
We never learn our narrator’s first name. She doesn’t consider it important, so for the sake of simplicity I’ll call her ‘H’ (her surname is Hirata). But, in the first few pages of her book, we learn what she does consider important. First, she tells us that she is half-Japanese and half-Swiss and rather plain. Then she explains that the same genes mingled to dazzling effect in her beautiful younger sister, Yuriko. Obsessed by heredity, H struggles to understand how nature could have been so cruel, in making Yuriko so gorgeous and herself so undistinguished. But this isn’t just a sisterly spat. H also tells us that ‘recently’, when the sisters were both middle-aged, Yuriko was murdered while working as a low-class prostitute. Shortly afterwards, another of their former schoolmates met the same fate. In an effort to recreate these women’s stories, and to understand how two promising students fell to such depths, H revisits their schooldays, where she discovers the roots and causes of the misery that has befallen all three of them in different ways.
Since childhood, H’s resentment of her sister has threatened to spiral out of control. She has always felt threatened by the almost monstrous perfection of Yuriko’s appearance, and is unable to flourish in an environment dominated by her pretty sibling. Even as small children, their relationship is founded on spite and rivalry, fuelled by mutual suspicion and competition for affection. And so H decides to find her own way. She can’t compete with Yuriko on looks, but she certainly can on brains. When her family move back to Switzerland, she refuses to go with them and instead moves in with her bumbling grandfather. Here she devotes herself to studying so that she can get into the prestigious Q High School for Young Women. This will get her on track to progress to Q University and then to find a job at one of Japan’s top firms. While she succeeds in getting admitted to the High School, on her first day she realises that all her work has been for nothing. Whereas she envisaged a studious, like-minded environment, full of potential, she instead finds herself in a world where wealth and privilege hold sway, and students’ opportunities are defined not by their potential, but by their clothes and their parents’ jobs.
Different girls in the class attempt different strategies. H becomes snide and cynical, wearing her scorn like a carapace and allowing her ambitions to be defeated. Her classmate Mitsuru works hard to get the necessary grades to become a doctor and lead the affluent life she’s dreamed of, while struggling to project a facade of wealth that will let her be accepted. And Kazue, who is just as socially awkward as H, throws herself into the school in desperation, driven by a ‘can-do’ attitude, believing that she simply has to try to become the most popular, most brilliant and more admired pupil at the school. H watches her, both impressed and disgusted by this fervent need to improve, to arrive, to belong. School isn’t at all what she hoped it would be, but things grow worse when Yuriko moves back from Switzerland and manages to get into the very same elite school – not through talent or brains, but simply through her beauty. Seething, H once again finds herself ranked second best to this genetic accident – this beauty – this monstrosity.
The book is driven more by character than by plot: the drama comes from watching H and her companions reacting to the injustice of their world. It asks us to think about the nature of beauty and the way its possession, or its lack, can define a woman’s life. The whole novel is an angry riposte to the cherished modern idea that one can improve one’s station through study: it’s a bitter expose of the competitive nature of Japanese schooling. It’s the dark side of all those pictures of grinning schoolgirls in knee-socks and short skirts, and it shows how the unforgiving mentality of this society, and its prejudice in favour of pre-existing privilege, can shape and stunt entire lives. H herself is a fascinating character: critical, unpleasant, vulnerable, simmering with spite and rage.
There’s nothing cuddly, heartwarming or sweet about this book. It goes into some very dark places of the mind, but you find yourself willingly wandering into the depths of Kirino’s moral labyrinth. This is one for those who like dark, uneasy, character-centred fiction, and would prove a useful counterbalance for anyone who (like me) has been charmed by old-world stories of courtesans, geisha and samurai. I didn’t like it as such, but it was a very good novel. It feels in some ways very similar to A Little Life, although without the tenderness that sometimes came through in that book. Kirino is a bold, ruthless and uncompromising writer. I’m tempted to look out for some of her other books, as a way to gain more insight into the darker hidden corners of contemporary Japan.