What happens to the human psyche, the human heart and soul, when one grows up in a regimented, highly competitive society where self-worth is often heightened through bringing the self-worth of others down through malicious bullying? That is one of the themes Natsuo Kirino explores in intimate, minute detail in Grotesque, putting the lives of four young women in particular who attend the Q High School in Japan under the microscope, similar to the way in which another character in the novel, Professor Kijima, a teacher of the girls at the school, does with beetles.
The unnamed narrator, a “half” (half-Japanese and half-European) whose sister Yuriko is also a “half” but “monstrous” in her beauty, copes the best she can, developing an “armor of malice,” as she describes it. We come to realize that the title is apt, referring equally to the characters in Grotesque and also to the Japanese school system and society that warps people and tries to force them to conform to unrealistic ideals of perfection.
Natsuo Kirino, who previous to the release of Grotesque in the U.S. was best-known as the author of the wonderful thriller Out, shows through the prisms of her main characters - the narrator, Yuriko, Kazue Sato, Mitsuro, and Professor Kijima - how people are not meant to live as lab animals to be experimented on. There are too many variables in individual personalities and responses to perceived stresses and danger. People either cope in some way but become damaged, warped, grotesque, or they fail to cope and become the nondescript detritus of society - the everyday Joe or Jill.
The narrator is an unreliable one, her perceptions and judgments of people and events clouded by her biased opinions of her situation and or reality. She can see flaws in others but has a hard time seeing her own. Though she can’t come to terms with what lies just below the surface in her own life and personality, early on in Grotesque she muses:
Whenever I’d climb the banks of the levees to gaze down into the brownish water of the river below, I’d imagine all the different life-forms swirling around beneath the
She is intensely jealous of Yuriko but tries to convince the readers that anyone placed in a similar situation would feel the same as she does, and her hatred of Yuriko stems from her younger sister’s “monstrous beauty.” Through having to deal with a sister who is like Yuriko, the narrator has developed a talent of her own:
Thanks to Yuriko, I too had been blessed with a certain talent. My talent was the uncompromising ability to feel spite (p. 47).
When the narrator’s feelings towards Yuriko are combined with the ultra-competitive nature of Japan’s Q school system, a recipe forms for lives to be ruined. Add to the mix Professor Kijima’s idea for a little “experiment” that involves admitting Yuriko to the school system despite her low test scores, on the basis solely of how beautiful she is, and watch the fireworks that transpire.
Grotesque is the written equivalent to a multi-car wreck, terrible in the lives laid to waste but too fascinating for the watcher to turn away. The narrator’s actions and lack of sympathy and understanding for her sister send Yuriko eventually into a life of prostitution. The same fate befalls a “friend” of the narrator, Kazue Sato, largely because of the narrator’s cruelness to her.
Other factors are involved in both of these cases, and the narrator denies she’s to blame - but, for instance, when Yuriko asks to live with the narrator and her grandfather after moving back to Japan from Switzerland, the narrator turns her down:
As long as I didn’t have to see my sister, I didn’t care if she came back to Japan or stayed in Switzerland. All I wanted was to preserve the quiet life I had with my grandfather (p. 90).
Shattered lives, jealousies, turning to a life of prostitution to try to compensate for not getting enough attention and genuine love as a child - Grotesque is an intense, gripping novel that’s impossible not to become engrossed in. The characters are so realistic and fully portrayed that even I, hearing from others what a great book this is, but with a doubt this might be a chick lit novel and not be one I’d like, enjoyed it immensely. It is a stirring work of literature from one of Japan’s leading authors, and I feel honored to have gotten the chance to read it.