Look Inside. Life at the prestigious Q High School for Girls in Tokyo exists on a precise social axis: a world of insiders and outsiders, of haves and have-nots. Beautiful Yuriko and her unpopular, unnamed sister exist in different spheres; the hopelessly awkward Kazue Sato floats around among them, trying to fit in. Years later, Yuriko and Kazue are dead — both have become prostitutes and both have been brutally murdered. At once a psychological investigation of the pressures facing Japanese women and a classic work of noir fiction, Grotesque is a brilliantly twisted novel of ambition, desire, beauty, cruelty, and identity by one of our most electrifying writers.

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This engrossing novel begins with the murders of two Tokyo prostitutes who had been at an expensive school in one of Japan's training grounds for the elite. How did they come to be among the lowest of the low, plying their trade in the city's devastating slums?

The intertwined stories of the victims and their killer hold mirrors up to the ugly face of Japanese society, seen from multiple view-points in a structure resembling Kurosawa's film version of Rashomon. The principal narrator is the sister of the beautiful Yuriko Hirata, so preternaturally lovely she is a kind of monster, from a mixed Swiss-Japanese family.

Their father is a brute, the grandfather in love with a totally unsuitable bar-owner. As for the two daughters, they are locked in a bitter rivalry. Their childhood is spent struggling through a system so competitive that a girl who doesn't wear genuine Ralph Lauren socks to school is jeered at, and modern Japan's relentless drive for success forms a similar pattern for the rest of their lives.

Social pretences must be maintained, though a family is so grasping that the father demands repayment of the cost of a phone call in which his daughter's schoolfriend learns of her mother's death. The old Japan, meantime, is fast disappearing, as symbolised by the grandfather's bonsai trees, sold off to buy the bar-owner's favours.

Into this vicious world comes a Chinese labourer, Zhang, emerging from a peasant society of random cruelty, who has seen his sister die in their desperate attempt to reach Japan. We learn early that Zhang is found guilty of the murder of Yuriko: but did he kill both girls, and what fuelled his murderous instincts? 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. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water," says the ugly sister, leading her own secret life. 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.

The Hirata sisters are not-too-distant cousins of the Brothers Karamazov. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Start your Independent Premium subscription today.

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Memoirs of a Geisha’s Sister

Grotesque , by Natsuo Kirino, author of Out is structured as a series of first-person narratives with changing narrators, some direct, others in the form of journal entries of the elaborated sort rarely found in real life. The chief suspect, Zhang, a Chinese illegal immigrant who is accused of murdering both women, and who admits to murdering Yuriko but not Kazue, is also afforded a lengthy statement. All three women had attended a prestigious educational institution. Rather than cohering to present a rounded portrait, all the narrators, whose accounts intersect, are unreliable, necessitating the reader to evaluate their truthfulness against each other. The main narrator is considered physically plain, whereas her younger sister Yuriko was so beautiful it seemed unnatural.


'Grotesque' cuts too close to the bone

Do the suffocating pressures of Japanese society produce monsters? Why would a career woman at an elite firm lead such a double life? Kirino starts exploring possible answers in one microcosm of Japanese society she calls school Q thought to represent Keio , and the coping mechanisms of four female students there. At this elite school, which runs its own kindergarten, the pecking order is determined by a complex formula that takes into account family background, personal style, brains and beauty. Yuriko, the daughter of a Swiss father and a Japanese mother, glides through with her unearthly beauty. The limits of such strategies become evident 20 years on.

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