The narrator is a daughter of a Swedish man and a Japanese woman, an average-looking child who grows into a plain, almost homely woman. She has a younger sister, Yuriko, who is so outstandingly beautiful that the narrator considers her a monster. We can almost taste the jealousy in her words as she talks about her sister.
The family has a vacation place, which they cannot really afford, but it looks good, where they meet another mixed couple, the Johnsons, he is an American with a Japanese wife, who of course make a great fuss over the sister. Our narrator’s treatment of her sister is so cruel, the sister moves in with this other couple.
Our narrator, who is never named in the book, is about to enter an elite girls high school, which she has worked very hard to gain admission, when her parents return to Sweden, taking her younger sister with her. Our narrator goes to stay with her mother’s father, an eccentric guy who is a scam artist dealing in bonsai, and who served some time in prison for his activities. He now leads a quiet life, tending some bonsai he has, and the two get along just fine. The mother has never before spoken of him, because of his bad reputation.
In Sweden, the mother commits suicide, the father has a chick on the side, and Yuriko decides to return to Japan, much to Narrator’s dismay. She tells Yuriko she cannot stay with her and grandfather because the place is so small, so Yuriko goes to stay with the Johnsons.
In spite of her very poor test scores, Yuriko is admitted to the same school, due to her beauty. While in school she meets up with the son of a professor and finds that she can make money from her beauty, through prostitution. She works out a deal with the boy who then acts as her pimp. Word of this gets back to Narrator, who is absolutely horrified.
Narrator has a couple of friends, who while fascinating in their own right as characters, act as further symbology for the theme of appearances. One, Kazue Sato, is the drab, strange daughter of a low level company functionary, who by dint of her excellent school work has been admitted to the school, but will never be part of the elite group, something she cannot see, and over the years there makes a laughing stock of herself trying. The other is a girl who is part of the elite but who befriends Narrator because her background is secret — her mother owns a bar.
After school ends, Kazue gets a good job, and turns to prostitution at night which somehow bolsters her ego. The years go on, Yuriko grows older and beat up, losing her once fabulous looks, and ends up walking the streets, the same as Kazue. They meet up and agree to share a street corner.
Both women are subsequently murdered, and a man, an illegal immigrant to Japan, is picked up for their murders. He steadfastly claims he did not murder Kazue, although he admits to killing Yuriko. We never are quite sure who really did kill these women. An entire section is dedicated to the writing of Zhang as he explains his background.
In addition to the ongoing theme of appearance, and of things never being quite what they seem, the book is clearly about women’s struggle for control of their lives, and about the rigid Japanese class structure.
It is a complex, long book, full of fascinating characters and sometimes surreal situations. There is so much to it that I have not told you, because that would make this post as long as War And Peace, but I urge you to read it. It is well worth your time.
Karino is most famous for her 1997 novel Out. She has a number of books, but only four are in English translation. The translator is Rebecca Copeland. There have been some criticisms of Copeland’s translation, claiming that school girl Japanese has been rendered into stilted unrealistic English conversations, and this may be so, but I enjoyed the book immensely nonetheless, because what do I know about school girl Japanese, right?