Summary: [Grotesque portraits] the malice and deceit that surround the female students of an elite all girls high school. ‘Here we have class based society in all its repugnant glory.’ [It tells the story of] the diabolically beautiful and nymphomaniac Yuriko and the isolated and aggressively competitive ‘outsider’ Kazue. Yuriko’s sister ‘Watashi’ (meaning ‘I’ – unnamed first narrator) feels deep resentment for the two, and tries her best to ruin them both. A monumental work of Kirino, which with overpowering literary style portraits the life of modern women (Øyvor Nybor’s translation of Grotesque’s summary Japanese version).

A woman who does not know herself has no choice other than to live with other people’s evaluations. But no one can adapt perfectly to public opinion. And herein lies the source of their destruction.

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I struggled a bit to find a nice summary in English that could sum up Grotesque; mostly because the English version has the tag “crime fiction,” and its summary makes the novel look like a thriller.

“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” (Grotesque’s summary English version).

There is really no detective game in this novel. Grotesque is about complex human relationships, especially women, in modern Japanese society. The author with her profound work has explored so many problems – feminism, prostitution, family and social hierarchy etc, so intricately weaved together to create a society that leaves our characters no way out. Instead of touching base on those problems, I will just talk about my impressions with Grotesque, and what sucked me in from the very first page.

Layers of first-person narratives

Natsuo Kirino, in my opinion, is without doubt one of the best authors who made use of first-person narrative. The story starts out with the unnamed main narrator Watashi and her account from childhood to the elite Q High School, with Yuriko being the main target for her hatred but also obsession. The psychological adventure into the minds of Watashi and Yuriko (and other characters) is so dark and twisted, yet so real and mesmerizing that once you open the book, you cannot stop. I often read autobiography from patients with psychological disorders for my class, and all the negativity, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts got me sympathetic, but also frustrated. But Grotesque is nothing like that. Watashi’s malice is so sane and calculated that I would at first believe all her words, and believe that her uncompromising ability to feel spite is inborn. Be careful not to trust our characters’ words to much: you will read different accounts from different characters.

Reading the different accounts is like where you peel off layer by layer to get to the core, or in this case the truth. But then I realize there is no truth. Who is the real Yuriko? A stupid nymphomaniac who could only get into Q High School by her look, or an intelligent girl who understands early how her monstrous beauty makes herself become objectified to a mere sexual object. Maybe it’s best for her to use appearance as a weapon, because there is really no way out.

“The only ones who wanted me were men. I discovered what it meant to exist only through this experience of being wanted by men. Because of this I will desire men for all eternity.”

Who is the real Watashi? The malicious, spiteful narcissistic who could not care less about Yuriko and others as she claimed herself to be, or a neglected high school girl who deeply yearned for attention and affection. Maybe she soon realized in her time at the Q High School that her attempt would be futile within a society that is strictly structured on beauty and affluence.

Implicit rules

The difference was not something that would softly fade away with the passage of time. There is no other way to explain it but to say that we new girls lacked what the other girls possessed seemingly by birth: beauty and affluence.

Kazue is another prostitute killed beside Yuriko, and her character is based on the real murder case of Yasuko Wanatabe, a senior economic researcher by day and a prostitute by night. It is hard to imagine someone like Kazue would join the sex industry: an ugly, uncool girl who has nothing but academic achievements. But then, is it really unimaginable? She just decides to sell her body on the spur of the moment? Kirino has already put everything out there for us: from her struggle to secure a place in the family hierarchy, to her hopeless attempt to fit into the prestigious Q High School. The amount of determination and effort she puts in to be accepted into the insiders’ circle of Q High School is absurd. While Watashi and Yuriko soon realize how the rigid hierarchy works: Watashi puts up a malicious façade, while Yuriko makes use of her beauty. If you take the entrance exams to get into Q High School, you are not the insiders; you are truly the insiders only if you start from Elementary School.

Kazue, however, does not seem to get it.

But it was this very determination that marked her as a target for bullying.

This Q High School where hard work is uncool and ridiculed seems to be the future society that Kazue is trapped in. One could say that Kazue’s decision to enter the sex industry is her break down point. But maybe the decision is not so much a break down point, but a realization of the implicit rules that she has been blind to. Maybe a realization of how to finally control her life. The author’s new perspective, through Kazue, makes us rethink about such terms as prostitution, or dominance, or feminism.

Hope you enjoy ! xD



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