“It wasn't so much that I was afraid of the place itself, but I was afraid of the creatures who masqueraded as people."
Author: Natsuo Kirino
Release Date: July 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 224 pages
Source: Goodreads Swap
In a crowded residential suburb on the outskirts of Tokyo, four teenage girls indifferently wade their way through a hot, smoggy summer and endless “cram school” sessions meant to ensure entry into good colleges. There’s Toshi, the dependable one; Terauchi, the great student; Yuzan, the sad one, grieving over the death of her mother—and trying to hide her sexual orientation from her friends; and Kirarin, the sweet one, whose late nights and reckless behavior remain a secret from those around her.
When Toshi’s next-door neighbor is found brutally murdered, the girls suspect the killer is the neighbor’s son, a high school boy they nickname Worm. But when he flees, taking Toshi’s bike and cell phone with him, the four girls get caught up in a tempest of dangers—dangers they never could have even imagined—that rises from within them as well as from the world around them.
With the rise of cult-classics such as Battle Royale, there seems to be a very pervasive theme appearing in Japanese literature over the past several years; teenage uprising. As a Westerner, I've often heard of "cram schools", the oppressive expectation put on Japanese teenagers to excel, and even the unbelievably high suicide rates of East Asian countries.
Kirino gives her readers a glimpse into the “darkness of the youthful heart” by focusing on four teenage girls: Toshi, the “straight arrow”; Terauchi, the intellectual; Yuzan, the tomboy struggling over her sexuality; and Kirarin, who is reckless and “willing to try anything for a little fun.”
However, when Toshi discovers that the shy and friendless boy next door has murdered his mother and fled, she decides not to tell the police what she knows. When the killer (given the contemptuous nickname, “Worm” by Toschi) steals her bike and her cell phone as he flees the city, she and her friends are irrevocably drawn into his dangerous game. After the four friends confer, they decide that the idea of “aiding and abetting” a murderer could be an interesting twist to their otherwise monotonous life.
The title of the novel is especially significant; none of the characters feel that they live in “the real world.” In fact, they have all gone to considerable lengths to create fantasy worlds that they inhabit in their minds. At school, many of the students not only create cliques, they even forge new identities. Toshi frequently tells teachers and government officials that her name is Ninna Hori and provides fictitious details about her family, home, and school.
In each chapter, a different character picks up the first-person narration. The plot moves surprisingly well given this technique. As each girl reacts differently to the fugitive Worm, we are thrust into a different "real world." Although the language is simple, I genuinely felt the isolation, anguish, and pain of each character. However, I couldn't help but feel less than sympathetic for the entire group, who could not see anything outside of their own little worlds.
Overall, the story is a fast-paced and chilling read. The writing is clumpy and awkward in some places, but that could be due to the rough translation. Kirinio's writing style, descriptive and fluid, more than makes up for a few botched scenes.