Review

Real World

by Natsuo Kirino

"Feminist noir" is the term most often used to describe Japanese
author Natsuo Kirino's dark and violent yet surprisingly insightful
novels. Kirino first burst onto the English-language scene with
OUT, a compelling work of fiction about a group of women who
conspire to murder one of their husbands and then cover it up.
GROTESQUE, his second novel to be published in English, focused on
two murders of prostitutes, as well as on the slain women's history
and past relationships. Although both are sometimes startlingly
graphic in their portrayal of violence, and are compelling stories,
reducing these books to their murder plots would mean only
scratching the surface of what they're actually about.

Kirino's third novel to be published in the U.S., REAL WORLD, is no
exception. Although the plot could probably be summarized in a
sentence or two, and although that plot could sound like the basis
for a really bad teenage thriller movie, his deft and perceptive
social observation and commentary lift the book from the world of
the grotesque into the realm of ideas.

REAL WORLD, like its predecessors, begins with a murder. This time,
it's the murder of a mother by her teenaged son, known as Worm.
Worm, like all the young characters in the book, is privileged,
going to a good school and attending "cram school" during the
summer to ensure that he doesn't fall behind in attempts to make it
into the best university. The murder is overheard by Worm's
neighbor, Toshi, a responsible girl and the center of her small
group of friends.

In his escape, Worm steals Toshi's bicycle as well as her cell
phone, subsequently using its address book to connect with Toshi's
friends: Yuzan, a closet lesbian struggling to define her identity;
Terauchi, a thoughtful girl and a good student who Worm enlists to
write his "manifesto"; and Kirarin, a beautiful young lady whose
night life as a reckless wild child is a secret even from her
friends. In turn, each girl --- as well as Worm himself --- reveals
hidden motivations, societal and familial pressures, and personal
histories that lead each to make startling, and sometimes tragic,
decisions.

The novel's title hints at one of its major themes --- the notion
of authenticity, of creating an individual, meaningful self when
one's society is focused above all on conformity as well as on
scholastic and financial success. Once word of the murder gets out,
Worm becomes an underground online hero, not because he killed his
mother per se, but because this successful student from a good home
found a way to escape from the life that had seemed pre-ordained
for him.

Likewise, each of Worm's contacts from Toshi's phone is striving
--- with various degrees of success --- to escape from the
expected, often by putting up boundaries or masks, by creating an
equally inauthentic "weapon," as Terauchi reflects: "My weapon is
that I can hide my feelings and say something stupid to cover them
up. Toshi's weapon is her made-up name, Ninna Hori, for Kirarin,
it's always pretending to be cheerful. Yuzan's the only one who
painfully exposes herself to the world."

The elusive nature of the "real," the authentic, is just one of the
complicated ideas that gives this novel its real backbone, its
philosophical and emotional heft. Sure, it's a compelling story
that ends with a tragic convergence of events, but it's also an
exploration of four distinct female "types," an exposé of
teenage culture in Japan and an insightful glimpse into Japanese
culture in general. This combination of elements will both
fascinate and resonate with Western readers, who will certainly be
clamoring to have access to even more of Natsuo Kirino's
electrifying, intelligent noir novels.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011

Real World
by Natsuo Kirino

  • Publication Date: July 14, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307387488
  • ISBN-13: 9780307387486