Natsuo Kirino started her writing career as a romance novelist for a simple reason.
"When I was writing romance novels, it was before my official debut," she says via an interpreter during a recent phone interview, "and I just wrote anything for money that would make money. But I wasn't able to write what I wanted."
Kirino longed to write novels of substance and depth. Born in 1951 in Japan, she has emerged as one of that country's most accomplished novelists. "Out," her first novel to be translated into English, was published in 2004. Nominated for an Edgar Award for best novel, it transcended the genre by way of its portrayal of a woman, a factory worker abused by her husband, who takes the ultimate revenge.
"I guess people tend to call my work crime," Kirino says. "but actually, I'm just making a portrait of the society as I see it. If you want to call it crime, that's fine."
In her native Japan, Kirino has been praised as one of the most inventive novelists of her generation. The Japanese critic Daisuke Hashimoto called her "the only truly innovative author to come along in the last two decades. It was she who reinvented the Japanese woman character to reflect the real, living, working Japanese woman."
"Grotesque," Kirino's new novel, again is ostensibly about crime. Two middle-aged prostitutes, Yuriko and Kazue, are murdered a year apart. Both attended the elite Q High School for Young Women and are connected by the unnamed narrator, Yuriko's sister and Kazue's friend.
Kirino based the novel on a real-life murder of a woman, a prostitute who was a graduate of one of Japan's prestigious schools. The author started to think about whether Japan's educational system contributed to the woman's fate. Class differences, wealth and appearances, she says, all combine to put immense pressure on students.
"I don't think it's good," Kirino say. "In a way, it's like the ultimate definition of unfairness."
Women especially are subject to unfair standards in Japan. In "Grotesque," Kirino renders Yuriko, via her sister, as being "terrifyingly beautiful. You may doubt that a person …