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Onyx reviews: Real World by Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino returns to a formula that proved successful in her English-language debut, 2003's Out, a story about four female co-workers who conspire to cover up a crime. In the third of her eighteen novels to be translated into English, Kirino again focuses on a small group of females, but this time they are teenagers, classmates. In doing so, she is able to explore the pressures to succeed that Japanese teenagers are subjected to by their parents. As one tutor says, they should "study as if they're going to die."

The four teenagers who take turns narrating the novel, Toshi, Yuzan, Kirarin and Terauchi, are as different as any random selection of high school girls could be in a society where conformity is valued. The one thing they share is a belief that none of the others understand them completely, that they have successfully hidden aspects of their personalities, when in fact the others see right through their thin disguises. One girl feels estranged from her mother, who is having an affair. They all play with alternate identities (Toshikio is Ninna Hori, the name she uses when they go out to karaoke), trying on new personalities the same way they try on new clothes. Yuzan thinks that none of the others know that she is a lesbian.

The story begins when Toshi hears sounds of violence in the house next door where the boy known as Worm lives with his parents. When she encounters Worm on the street shortly after the disturbance, he acts as if nothing happened. After she returns home from school, though, her bicycle is gone from the train station and with it the cell phone she accidentally left in the parcel carrier.

Later that night, she learns that Worm's mother has been murdered and he is the prime suspect. When questioned by the police, Toshi arbitrarily conceals the fact that she saw Worm after the murder, and fails to mention the missing bicycle and phone. These capricious lies of omission are the launching point for everything that follows, the first in a series of bad decisions that cascades out of control, leading to a disaster that could have been avoided many times.

On the run from the law, Worm starts calling the girls' numbers stored in Toshi's missing cell phone. He brags about killing his mother, but Toshi's friends don't take him seriously until they see the news. Though they are horrified by the violent crime, they are also intrigued by Worm, who actually did something they've all fantasized about at one point in their young lives. The ways they respond to him are as diverse as they are. They identify with him, flirt with him, engage him in conversation, conspire to meet with him or refuse to have anything to do with him. And yet they are deeply curious to find out why he did what he did, and what he plans to do now.

The book's title comes from Worm's belief that the moment he killed his mother he split apart from the real world—that he now lives on a different plane of existence from everyone else. There was the world before he bashed the "total idiot's" head with a baseball bat and the world that began the moment after. He does not regret his actions, only the circumstances the crime has placed him in. His mother, who regarded her life as unfulfilled, saw Worm as her vicarious path to success. She drove him constantly to excel and, when it turned out that he was only an average student and not superior like she hoped, she resented his shortcomings. She turned an embarrassing juvenile indiscretion into full-fledged humiliation in order to force her husband to relocate the family from the outskirts into Tokyo, a socially upward move. Under the constant pressure of her goading and chiding, Worm snapped.

Worm gets his own time on center stage as his slow-motion escape takes him farther from Tokyo's center on a borrowed bicycle. He feels persecuted, like a war criminal. In his new world, his primary goal is to become as famous as Sakakibara, another young killer who wrote a manifesto blaming his crimes on the pressures of Japanese school system.

Worm has little money, so he survives on sparse rations and bottled water from convenience stores, where he reads comics and sleeps in the shade in parking lots out of the blistering summer sun. His newfound fame and quasi-heroic status among the four friends make him garrulous where he has always been taciturn, especially around women. He even suggests to one of the girls that murder may be the solution to her angst over an ex-boyfriend.

Novels like Kirino's provide an insider look into a society that is vastly different from our own and poorly understood in the west—for example, the loss of face endured by Worm's father, who feels obligated to visit the neighbors and apologize profusely for the inconveniences they experienced at being questioned by the police, and from having the media camped out in the neighborhood. One of the girls attends a prestigious prep school located over an hour from her home. From a very early age, she endures the crowded Tokyo train system by herself and is subjected to every conceivable form of humiliation. It's hard to imagine putting a young girl in New York City in that situation on a daily basis, for example.

Though adults are present in the girls' lives to a certain extent, the generations are mostly oblivious to each other. Neither faction understands the hardships of the daily lives of the other. For the girls, it's all about bowing to the pressure to succeed. Several of them are spending the summer attending "cram" school to improve their chances of getting into good colleges when they graduate. None of them, however, convey any sense they believe they actually will succeed in life.

The murder and Worm's subsequent interactions with the four friends are mainly an excuse for Kirino to lay bare the inner lives of these four girls. It's difficult to evaluate how accurately she creates the jargon of Japanese teens in her own language, but the translation feels realistic in the alternation between moments of deep perception and self-absorption. These girls inhabit the uncomfortable realm between childhood and adulthood. Though they are expected to behave like adults, they don't know all the rules. What little wisdom they possess about adult concerns is mostly theoretical.

By the end of the book, though, there will be no turning back to adolescence. The frivolous and thoughtless choices they make lead to consequences they will all have to live with for the rest of their lives—which is unmercifully brief for some of them.

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