Real World by Natsuo Kirino Alfred Knopf, HK$195 Any foreigner who has lived in Seoul or Tokyo must have marvelled at the youngsters on the late-night buses. These children of the dark are not rebellious teenagers on their way home from illicit parties. They are pre-teens in neat uniforms returning from cram schools - called hagwon in South Korea and juku in Japan - after a 14-hour day of regular lessons followed by special tutoring. Squeezed alongside drunken salarymen, the young boys and girls have faces stretched tight by obedience, their souls scrubbed raw by the daily grind of study and fear. Every child knows the price of failing to enter a leading university and suicides are commonplace. During a year living in the South Korean capital I often wondered why these downtrodden children killed themselves instead of the parents who forced them to endure such a brutal regime. In Real World, the fourth of Japanese author Natsuo Kirino's books to be translated into English - in this instance by Philip Gabriel - the central character is matricidal and suicidal, leaving bleak consequences in his path. Kirino began her career as a romance novelist and turned to crime with her fourth book. Since then she has perfected the art of writing about murder, which she does with the emotional detachment of a mortuary assistant. She approaches her characters like a lepidopterist, pinning them to the page and exploring their motionless spirits. This approach gives her prose a stark beauty, but don't expect to emerge unscathed. Kirino's characters have an infectious nihilism that, like nightfall, changes the way we see the world. It all begins with Worm, the adolescent boy who lives next door to Terauchi, an insecure teenaged girl. He murders his nagging mother with a baseball bat and then goes on the run. It is a sweltering summer in Tokyo, the schools are closed for a month but all Terauchi's friends are attending cram schools. They cycle to class in the heat, drenching their mobile phones with sweat-soaked hormones as they text their way through traffic jams. One of these phones - Terauchi's - ends up in Worm's hands. He also takes his neighbour's bicycle. The phone and the bicycle become the instruments by which Worm spreads like a virus through the lives of Terauchi's three female friends until he ends up with Kirarin, who joins him on the run, shares noodles with him in suburban convenience stores and lets him explore her body in a thicket of bamboo grass as police hunt for them nearby among deserted vacation cottages. It is the sex, furtive at first but then explosive, that leads to an act of violence that consumes angels and demons alike. The foreplay that precedes the consummation of this relationship is one of the strangest in recent fiction. Worm seems to have no libido, unless an adolescent's self-loathing counts. And Kirarin finds him repulsive and pines for a previous lover who abandoned her - until the moment her feelings ignite. Even in translation Kirino's work retains a fine, literary quality and that makes Real World all the more seductive, even if the novel's moral compass is askew. Everybody suffers but, to most readers, it may seem that Worm does not suffer enough while others, especially Terauchi, suffer too much. This seems to be Kirino's philosophical perspective at work. In Sophocles, after Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother, the moral consequences are swift and unambiguous. In Kirino's world Worm's matricide - and his plans to kill his father - are acts that float like embers on the breeze. Some drift harmlessly to Earth while others ignite infernos that consume the lives of others. The only certainty is that all who can feel the breeze are at risk. It appears Kirino wants us to see that violent death and moral destruction are random, disconnected from the acts that set them in motion. There is no hope for divine intervention and goodness can't save anybody. Within this nihilistic framework Kirino weaves a strong story. The complex structure of her narrative leaves the outcome uncertain until the end and it's possible to emerge from the book with a genuine sense of loss, something that is rarely the result of reading thrillers by American authors. This is probably because illusion is the current that exercises a strong pull throughout Real World. The first line of the novel has one character painting on false eyebrows. The last has the same girl vowing to abandon a fake name. Perhaps that is the point Kirino wants to make: reality is the only morality, but the point at which the fake and the real intersect is never clear.