Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They impact people in sometimes unexpected, even tragic, ways. To show this ‘ripple effect,’ let’s turn today’s spotlight on Natsuo Kirino’s Real World.
Early one hot summer afternoon, Toshiko Yamanaka, a senior in high school, is preparing to go to cram school to help her prepare for college entrance exams. She hears some loud crashes from the house next door; but, when nothing else happens, she decides to go on to cram school. On her way, she sees Ryo, the boy her age who lives next door. He seems to be fine, and that relieves Toshiko. Later, though, she returns home only to find that the woman next door has been murdered, and that two detectives want to speak to her.
It’s soon clear that the police suspect Ryo, whom Toshiko and her friends have nicknamed Worm, of the murder. But when they question her about what she saw and heard, Toshiko decides to lie. In an odd way, she has a sort of sympathy for Worm:
‘I wasn’t so much afraid of him as curious to know what he’d been thinking. I was sure he would never tell adults how he felt then…I think I know how he feels.’
It isn’t that she condones the murder, but she does feel a sort of bond with Worm as a fellow teen. What’s more, she’s afraid that if she admits she saw the boy, she might be considered some kind of accomplice.
That feeling is strengthened when Toshiko learns that Worm stole her bicycle and her telephone and is on the run. Now she is afraid that it looks as though she helped him. Then, Worm uses her telephone to get in touch with her and with her three friends, Kazuko Terauchi, Kiyomi ‘Yuzan’ Kaibara, and Kirari Higashiyama.
Each of the four girls interacts with Worm, and each has a slightly different reaction to the possibility that he killed his mother. Each of them also decides not to report anything to the police or to other adults in their lives. As the events of the next few days play out, we see, from five different perspectives (Worm’s plus those of the four girls), how things spin out of control.
As the story goes on, each of the girls makes some choices that have a profound impact on what happens. Put together, the result ends up being tragic. And in the end, we see how even a simple choice, sometimes made almost impulsively, can have far-reaching consequences.
One of the important elements in this story is the ‘if only’ phenomenon that many people feel when tragedy such as murder strikes. Each of the characters believes that some of the awful events that happen could have been prevented, ‘If only I had told someone/made that call/tried one more time/hadn’t said ____,’ etc.. As one character puts it:
‘All the what ifs and if onlys…Anyone who says I should stop thinking about these kinds of things doesn’t have burdens himself. Or else is a person who never had a decisive moment in his life. I’ve been thinking about all kinds of things, and I’ve decided I’m going to live with this burden for the rest of my life.’
That sense of guilt and self-recrimination both draws some of the characters together and keeps them apart.
The main characters in the novel are teenagers. So another important element in it is the world they inhabit and the way they think. These teens face an entirely new world, as they see it – one their parents don’t understand and don’t seem interested in understanding. They don’t really feel safe, and even those who have caring parents don’t really feel they can depend on them. So they need to depend on themselves and each other.
Since the perspectives shared are those of teens, we also get a sense of teenage angst, short-sightedness and risk-taking. This situation is more than any of them can really manage; yet, they would rather try to do that then admit their helplessness. Each of the characters is different, so we also get to learn something about them. Toshiko is serious and thoughtful. Tarauchi is the smart one with a bold, brave side, but hides her own share of deep pain. Yuzan is struggling with coming out as lesbian; and Kirari is a ‘nice, properly brought up’ girl who isn’t willing to allow herself to be vulnerable around boys. One thing they have in common is that the adult world has a kind of ‘otherness’ for them. They each have a different relationship with their families, but in each case, there’s a barrier of immaturity that makes it impossible for them to really take their parents’ perspectives. And there’s a generational barrier that makes it difficult for their parents to have a sense of what these young people face.
The story takes place in Tokyo, so the reader gets a sense of modern life there. Some things, such as the media frenzy about the murder, will be familiar no matter where one lives. But other things are distinctly Japanese and distinctively Tokyo. Culture, daily life and so on – even students’ required readings lists – reflect life there. To put it another way, it’s a look at Tokyo through teenage eyes.
This is a bleak story without much of a happy ending. That said though, there are characters who, as you might say, survive and get through it. We get the sense that these characters are forever changed by what happens, but that they will go on. Still, readers who prefer endings where everything works out in the end will notice that that doesn’t happen here.
Real World is an uncompromising look at modern teenage life in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. It depicts the impact of murder on several lives, and features young people who are trying to make sense of it all, and who make fateful choices as they do so. But what’s your view? Have you read Real World? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 16 November/Tuesday 17 November – The Calling – Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe
Monday 23 November/ Tuesday 24 November – Blanche on the Lam – Barbara Neely
Monday 30 November/Tuesday 1 December – Death in Breslau – Marek Krajewski