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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Real World

Kirino Natsuo

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To purchase Real World

Title: Real World
Author: Kirino Natsuo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 204 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Real World - US
Real World - UK
Real World - Canada
Real World - India
Le vrai monde - France
Real World - Italia
  • Japanese title: リアルワールド
  • Translated by Philip Gabriel

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Our Assessment:

B- : characters and actions not sufficiently convincing, and very crowded

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 4/10/2008 James Smart
The Independent . 24/10/2008 Emma Hagestadt
The Japan Times . 23/11/2008 Steve Finbow
The LA Times . 13/7/2008 Diana Wagman
The New York Sun . 16/7/2008 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/7/2008 Kathryn Harrison
San Francisco Chronicle . 3/8/2008 Andrew Leland

  From the Reviews:
  • "The third of Japanese crime queen Kirino's novels to be translated into English is a tense, worried book of actions and consequences, and a telling portrait of a group whose life of cram schools and preoccupied parents leaves them distrustful of the adult world they are being groomed for." - James Smart, The Guardian

  • "Through Worm, she chronicles the toxic fall-out of an educational system that fosters conformity above individualism. (...) Philip Gabriel's excellent translation helps to bring this lurid tale into even sharper focus." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "One of the problems with this novel is that, although the analysis of teenage morality and action is interesting and valid, the writing is more tell than show. Paragraphs explaining the plot and the charactersí thoughts pepper the narrative. The reader isnít allowed to make up his/her mind as to the motivations (or nihilistic lethargy) of the teenagers. At times, the novel is over-explicatory, condescending even." - Steve Finbow, The Japan Times

  • "The girls are surprisingly introspective and cognizant of their own personalities and foibles. They have different lives and interests, but their voices are too similar. Only Worm, the boy who murdered his mother with a baseball bat, is different, but we get too little time with him. (...) As compelling as this story is, it is also depressing. These kids are resigned to a life without fulfillment." - Diana Wagman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Ms. Kirino's faithfulness to teenage navel-gazing slows down a book that should have been suspenseful (.....) Perhaps her novel is meant as an allegory, but it does not read as such, at least in translation. If Real World is indeed a work of social realism, Ms. Kirino is either a masterful cynic or the cartographer of a very scary side of reality." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "Noir fiction generally posits a moral universe as deliberate and stark as that in the novels of Dostoyevsky, its plots unfolding in a moody urban landscape marked by corruption and incontinence, a setting that transcends its role as stage to become player. As Dostoyevsky did in Crime and Punishment, Kirino pushes her antihero to murder as a means of philosophical statement and communicates an authorial anxiety that contemporary social ills will destroy humanity. But while Dostoyevsky sets up a contest between Christian love and a pernicious nihilism that inspires barbarity, Kirinoís Real World offers no possibility of god or redemption." - Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The book sacrifices the pleasures of a gripping plot and rich social descriptions, leaving promising but incomplete elements of both. It retains the grisly murder. (...) If this sounds suspenseful, for the most part it's not. Few turns of the plot come unexpectedly after the initial murder, and the twists that do come as a surprise are worried over by the characters until they've long lost their excitement. (...) Presented with attitudes like this, the reader becomes as estranged from the characters as they are from the rest of the world. This must be Kirino's intended effect: She calls attention to the reality of contemporary Japanese teen alienation by writing a novel in which the reader is totally alienated from its narrators." - Andrew Leland, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In comparison to Kirino Natsuo's two previous novels to appear in English translation, Real World is, at just over 200 pages, a slim novella. Yet here's a book that might have benefitted from being filled out more, as Kirino has no less than five major characters, each of whom narrates at least one section of the novel, each trying to figure out their place in the 'real world' as they approach adulthood. It's a lot to try to stuff into such little space, especially the way she goes about it.
       The one boy, nicknamed Worm, takes the most radical action, killing his mother, which sets everything in motion. The other four are a loose group of girl-friends, one of whom lives next to the killer; when he takes her bicycle and cellphone after committing the deed he gets in touch with the others and all four become sucked into what has happened.
       Worm attends a prestigious school, but isn't doing very well there. Neither particularly bright nor attractive, he barely has any contact with girls and is clearly a disappointment to his overbearing mother and largely absent father. The girls are a mix of types, though clearly all very much in search of an identity. Each describes herself differently from the way she is perceived by the others, and uses (or, like Worm, is called) a different name than her given one. And:

In our four-girl group all of us have a second name that we use when we rent a karaoke box. You have to be careful, Terauchi always warned us, or you'll wind up in some database. Then adults will control you.
       But aside from practical reasons they are obviously trying to establish identities for themselves, trying out different ones. And while it is an adult-controlled world where girls their age are seen just as potential consumers in a world of commercial excess, parents, in particular, aren't much of a presence (and exert relatively little influence). And the adult world is still a very separate one: shockingly -- more so in Japan, presumably, where deference to authority and seniority still counts for a lot more -- the girls don't rat Worm out when he contacts them, and the girl who is his neighbour, Toshiko, lies to the police when they first question her about what happened, for no good reason.
       The girls aren't truly seduced by Worm, but they are intrigued by him, some to greater degrees. As each in turn narrates what happens after the murder, including their encounters and conversations with Worm, they also describe other events from their own lives. Throughout, the idea of finding oneself, and a place in the world, is significant, most obviously in the case of the girl who believes she is homosexual, but also in the others'. And throughout there is the question of what the 'real world' is. Worm seems to have removed himself from it -- or rather, he's radically changed the parameters: "This is my reality now", he says. And he gets philosophical about his deed, too:
What's more important is how an experience makes you go off to another world, how you live your life there. In that other world. And what you think about the world you left behind.
       One girl finally has enough of Worm (or rather, hasn't found what she expected from and in him) and tells him:
I've had it. I'm going home. Back to the ordinary world you'll never be able to return to.
       Yet things don't work out quite that way. Among Kirino's small successes in the novel is in how she presents the consequences, with some of the characters escaping almost all connexion with the crime and aftermath, and others destroyed by it.
       Not all that much happens in the short time Worm is on the run, yet the book feels overcrowded and the characters underdeveloped: five is too many to juggle adequately here, at least the way Kirino does it. And it's a book full of sour aftertastes, Kirino's Japan a world where everything seems broken, most obviously families and youth. Worm's actions are extreme, but the way the girls act is equally disturbing and unpleasant. As such, it's an interesting picture of contemporary Japan, with some decent scenes and observations -- especially as the characters recount older defining memories -- but overall it's far from satisfying.

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Real World: Reviews: Kirino Natsuo: Other books by Kirino Natsuo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生; actually: Hashioka Mariko) was born in 1951.

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