Out, by Natsuo Kirino

Tokyo noir. I asked for more workplaces and certainly get one here: vivid descriptions of working the night shift in a factory that makes boxed lunches. Kirino sucks in the reader with detailed descriptions of the inspection process before the employees start work, the smell of the different foodstuffs to be assembled, and the way the line works.

Four women have banded together to support each other and make the line run more efficiently. Their ages and characters vary widely but all struggle in the traps their lives have become, watching their families disintegrate.

At 43, Masako has learned to walk alone, her natural reserve having hardened into an enigmatic shell. Her teenaged son has not spoken for three years, since being expelled from school, and her husband has withdrawn into his own world as well, sleeping in another room and rarely speaking to her. The co-worker who runs the line is Yoshie, a widow in her late fifties, whom they call the Skipper. She is barely scraping by financially, and cares for her rebellious, teenaged daughter and invalid mother-in-law. The descriptions of changing the old woman’s diaper—cloth because Yoshie cannot afford disposable diapers—bring back memories of when my children were babies.

The youngest at 29, Kuniko, is deeply in debt. Never one to postpone gratification, she is overweight and lusts after designer clothes and shoes. As the story begins, her husband takes all their savings and disappears, leaving her with no way to pay off her debts, even if she were inclined to do so. The fourth woman, Yayoi, is 34 and quite lovely. However, the strain of taking care of two small children has driven a wedge between her and her husband, who has fallen for a hostess in a gambling club. When Yayoi discovers that he has gambled away all their savings and complains, he becomes physically abusive.

I’ve rarely encountered such memorable characters. Men don’t come off very well in this book, most of them selfish and greedy, intent on using women as toys that can be abandoned when you get bored. I’ve certainly known my share of irresponsible men, but I don’t think it is a universal trait by any means, nor one necessarily linked to the y-chromosome, so I was relieved to see at least one thoughtful and responsible male character, a young worker at the factory, half-Brazilian and half-Japanese.

Although I often read hard-boiled crime fiction, some of which is pretty gruesome (think: Minette Walters, Dennis Lehane), no book has disturbed me as much as this one. I found that I could not even read it in the evening or my dreams would be simply horrendous. It wasn’t the level of gore that disturbed me; hey, I laughed at the wood chipper in Fargo. No, what horrified me were the psychological changes that the murder caused in all of the characters.

Most mysteries follow the detective who is trying to solve the crime. A few might interpolate a chapter now and then from the evil murderer’s point of view. But Kirino stays almost exclusively with the murderer and the murderer’s accomplices, all of whom react to their first murder and the stress of the police investigation in ways that surprised me. Surprised me? No, they staggered me. I had no idea that the human psyche could go down those paths. Yet, with Kirino leading me by the hand, I found each step completely believable.

I recommend this book with caution. It is a murder mystery like no other.

The Office of Desire, by Martha Moody

So why don’t we get more books set in the workplace? Granted, most offices have fewer opportunities for drama than a police station or a hospital, but in the end the same things drive the story: the interactions between a group of people within their environment.

Anyone who has worked in an office knows that there is plenty of material for both drama and comedy. In fact, during a period when I worked in a particularly stressful environment, we joked about what a great sitcom our work lives would make. Each new, absurdly counter-productive move by the management would send us racing to the back parking lot to compare notes on how that particular sitcom episode would develop. Later, when the British series about office life came out, I figured they must have gotten the idea from us.

Here we have a small doctors' office, staffed by two doctors and three employees. Caroline is the receptionist and tells much of the story, alternating with one of the doctors, Hap Markowitz. The other two employees are Alice, the nurse, and Brice, who handles the financials. Caroline calls them “the ABCs”. The other doctor is the recently divorced Will Strub. In the course of the story, the friendships between these five characters develop and shift in unexpected directions. They clearly care for each other, even as they annoy one another.

The book is quite funny, in a dark way. Brice’s love of old movies, Alice’s reinventions of herself, Will’s discovery of religion all lard the storylines with humor. Some of the storylines are very dark indeed, yet the prose is compulsively readable.

At first, I thought this was going to be a chick lit book, something light, in the “Sex and the City” vein perhaps. But it turns out to be much more serious than that and becomes a very interesting exploration of friendship, what we owe to our friends—our work friends, our personal friends—and where we draw the line between our responsibility to them and our responsibility to ourselves. I would love to find more books like this one.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

Although I know many people thought this the best book they had read all year, I found it, in a word, boring. My only motivation for continuing to slog through it was that it was my book club’s selection for the month, although in the end I had to miss that particular meeting.

As most people know by now, this is the story of two women in Afghanistan, both of whom we meet as children. Mariam, the product of an affair between a maid and the married master of the house, lives with her mother in Herat and is occasionally visited by her father. After her mother's death, Mariam is married off to Rasheed, a man 30 years her senior who lives in Kabul. Rasheed does not allow her to leave the house unless she is with him and covered by the burqa. When she fails to produce a son, Rasheed becomes even more abusive.

Laila, who lives on the same street as Mariam and Rasheed, is orphaned in her teens when her parents are killed by a bomb. Pregnant and told that her boyfriend has been killed, Laila sees no choice but to accept Rasheed's invitation to become his wife, joining Mariam in the household. After some initial enmity the two women become friends, and Rasheed's abuse extends to Laila as well. I don’t think I’ve given anything away; you can see all of these plot developments coming when the girls are first introduced.

Two things made this story so boring. One is the simplicity of the language. Some books can hold my attention with the sheer beauty of their prose, but this isn't one of them. I admire Hosseini's courage for writing in English, which is not his first language, but the simple sentences and preponderance of one-syllable words hardly constitute a prose style likely to capture the interest of an adult reader. While appropriate for the sections of the book about the women's childhoods, the use of such language to describe their lives as adults further infantilises them. Perhaps this is Hosseini's intent.

The second and more important factor is that the characters are one-dimensional. Abused Woman #1 and Abused Woman #2 passively suffer their fate. I respect that Hosseini is trying to challenge himself by writing about women, but even the male characters—Rasheed, Mariam's father, Laila's boyfriend—have no depth. None of the characters grows or changes in the course of the story. Well, Mariam does eventually befriend Laila and try to protect her, but that does not make Mariam any different from the girl she had been before her marriage. Without character development, the story becomes just one instance of abuse after another. Perhaps if the characters had been presented in more depth, I might have cared about them and cared about their fate. But I didn't.

Michael Chabon in his fascinating collection of essays, Maps and Legends, talks about the dangers involved in creating characters. To make them live, you must confront your fears, reveal deeply hidden secrets, tell the truth. Here, Hosseini views his characters from a distance, moving them around like chesspieces on a board, never truly getting inside their heads.

Of some interest are the details of daily life in Herat and Kabul. However, since the two women spend most of their time imprisoned in the house, such details are few and far between. I'm at a loss to understand why so many people liked this book so much. Maybe if I had known nothing about spousal abuse or the lives of women in fundamentalist societies, I would have found the book more interesting.

On the other hand, perhaps I am expecting too much, wanting literary substance in a popular novel. But the best book they'd read all year? Oh well. This is not the first time that high expectations have ruined a novel for me.

Best books of 2008

These are the top twelve best books I read in 2008. If I blogged about the book, then I’ve noted the date when I posted the review; please check the archive for a fuller discussion of the book.

1. Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
8 September 08
Indescribable. You just have to experience it.

2. Averno, by Louise Gluck
Gluck’s lyric meditations on death, often using the myth of Persephone as a way in; deceptively simple language that strikes to the core, the beauty of the natural world, solace and despair commingled. Still too close to these poems to blog about them.

3. The Three-Cornered World (Kusa Makura), by Natsume Soseki
22 September 08
An artist visits a remote mountain resort out of season; beautiful descriptions, thoughtful—and sometimes funny—discussions about life and art. Is solitude necessary for immersion in your art? Is distance necessary for aesthetic appreciation of life?

4. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale
8 December 08
Fascinating account of a true crime investigation by one of Scotland Yard's first detectives, with illuminating social context about Victorian England.

5. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G.B. Edwards
31 March 08
Fictional first-person narrative of life on Guernsey in the beginning of the 20th century; a character and a voice that stay with you.

6. The Lost Upland, by W.S. Merwin
12 May 08
Three stories set in the rural uplands of France with their limestone outcroppings, sheep pastures, and vineyards; gorgeous language, flawed and funny characters, the sadness of an ancient way of life disappearing.

7. The Gathering, by Anne Enright
13 October 08
A peculiarly affecting story of an Irish family; fiction rarely feels this real.

8. The Untouchable, by John Banville
11 February 08
Fictional retelling of the story of Anthony Blunt, one of the Cambridge spies; devotion, betrayal, the quest for authenticity—it's all here.

9. True Confessions, by John Gregory Dunne
A classic crime story—can't imagine why I'd never read it before; it has the qualities that later made Chinatown such a great film.

10. After, by Marita Golden
Will change the way you think about race, cities, police. One of the most honest books I've ever read. Just as good on this second read for my book club.

11. The Lighthouse, by P.D. James
2 June 08
Further investigations by Commander Dalgleish, this time on a small island off the coast of Cornwall that has been turned into an exclusive resort; an intelligent read, with allusions to lighthouses and small islands to delight the reader.

12. The Darling, by Russell Banks
A woman's life, from Weather Underground to Liberia to a farm in upstate NY; I especially appreciated the parts set in Liberia and the understanding of its past and complex present that I gained from this book.