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Monsters of the night 

Juicy novel takes psychological turn

To read Natsuo Kirino's latest novel, you've got to have a glass of wine nearby -- a glass of dark, lusty, blood-red wine.

Why? Because Grotesque is a story of monsters. Not your run-of-the-mill creatures that take joy in fear and savor the taste of blood, mind you. No, the monsters Kirino conjures are the sexy, seductive ones that prey on every pure, innocent thought you may ever have. And that glass of lusty wine can only add to the pleasure of it.

The novel begins as an intimate conversation between the narrator and the reader. Slowly, this deeply disturbed, half-Japanese, half-Swiss woman confides the intricate details of the lives of her sister Yuriko and an old high school classmate Kazue, both prostitutes who are murdered in the line of duty. What's fascinating is that while Yuriko is a stereotypical whore, Kazue is actually a member of an engineering firm who uses her status to bait customers: "Hey, I'm a professional in a major firm. Don't you want to know why I turn to prostitution at night?"

As the narrator reflects on the past -- when the three of them attended the Q High School for Young Women -- she paints Yuriko to be a monstrosity of beauty and Kazue as a conformist stricken by status. While a reader might initially pity the narrator, who obviously has suffered from an inferiority complex when compared to her beautiful younger sister, her own monstrous fangs are revealed early on in the story.

By giving voice to all the major characters, Kirino sheds light on a velvety dark world that only leaves room for shock and pity. For example, the narrator states that she never loved her younger sister, believing her to be a monster. Yuriko declares in her diary that she's a nymphomaniac and lost her virginity at the age of 14 to an older family member. A high school professor confesses in a letter to admitting Yuriko to the prestigious high school because of her beauty. And the murderer? He realizes that he wanted nothing more than to live as husband and wife with his younger sister Mei-jun.

The occupation of prostitution is a cold, emotionless pathway in its simplest state. But in Grotesque, a woman doesn't become a lady of the night for the mere purpose of making money. No, Yuriko and Kazue both deal with deep psychological issues, including abandonment. They are monsters of the night, feasting upon any unsuspecting man who will have them. As Yuriko puts it, "I noticed that the men who embrace me, every single one of them, end up with an emptiness when they are done, as if they have lost something. Maybe that is why I am always in search of a new man. Maybe that is why I am now a prostitute."

While the characters and the story seem outrageous, Kirino does a splendid job of capturing the essence of the changing Asian stereotype. Grotesque might appear to be densely written, with her portrayals are right on target. For example, Asian women were once always believed to be submissive and timid, as seen in the character of Yuriko and the narrator's mother. Now, they're just as often as domineering and headstrong as the man of the household, if not more so. Yuriko, Kazue and even the narrator are all not afraid to stand up to their male counterparts, whether it's in the hotel room, as in the cases of Yuriko and Kazue, or in the office, as with the narrator.

Another change in Asian society that this novel recognizes has to do with the way a half-Asian person is accepted. In the past, those who were not full-blooded Asians were often looked down upon, as their blood had been "tainted" (so to speak). Now, that's not so much the case. In Grotesque, young Yuriko is immensely admired for her beauty, a direct result of her half-European blood.

In her novel, Kirino tackles an underground society long known for its monstrous discreteness. Every possible secret that might have been buried deep beneath the soil is revealed in one way or another by the narrator. Grotesque is infused with hatred, scandal, lasciviousness, cruelty, psychological turmoil, beauty and so much more. But what will really attract you to this novel is the outpouring of secrets. After all, there's nothing like sharing a juicy bit of gossip over a glass of red wine.

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