South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

“For a long time, she held a special place in my heart. I kept this special place just for her, like a “Reserved” sign on a quiet corner table in a restaurant. Despite the fact that I was sure I’d never see her again.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 224 pages
Read from November 26, 2020 to December 2, 2020

I just realised that I am four books shy of having read everything by Murakami (23 books according to his website). If that doesn’t show that he is my favourite author then I don’t know what does. No matter what book I pick up by Murakami, regardless of the plot, each book brings me back to the same feelings; comforting, welcoming, and familiar.

South of the Border and West of the Sun is a love story and while much of Murakami’s work have love stories in them it isn’t always the main focus. This one was an exception. Hajime is an only child and he’s a bit hung up on it as he feels that only children are different. During his childhood, he makes a friendship with a girl with a lame leg called Shimamoto. Shimamoto also happens to be an only child and the two of them find a friendship that carries them into adolescence as they spend their time listening to music and talking about the future. The two of them grew apart as they got older, as adolescent friendships often do. However, even when Hajime reaches middle age, is married with children, a successful business owner with a seemly ordinary and happy life, he cannot stop thinking about Shimamoto and what could have been. Shimamoto predictably reappears in his life, igniting a passion in Hajime that he can’t ignore and will risk everything for.

As a reader, Hajime’s obsession becomes your obsession as you anxiously anticipate what will happen when Hajime somehow reunites with Shimamoto. That doesn’t, however, make it any less heartbreaking when his wife finds out what he’s been doing.

“I think you still love me, but we can’t escape the fact that I’m not enough for you. I knew this was going to happen. So I’m not blaming you for falling in love with another woman. I’m not angry, either. I should be, but I’m not. I just feel pain. A lot of pain. I thought I could imagine how much this would hurt, but I was wrong.”

The book itself is a testament to the power of memory and nostalgia, as well as the risks and rewards of indulging in them. The story is also very much about childhood and the dissatisfaction that comes with becoming an adult and the endearing power of first love.

“…..the sad truth is that certain types of things can’t go backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”

This book, however, lacked the pull that most Murakami books have for me as perhaps it was too love-centred or that I was generally more interested in Shimamoto and her life and thoughts than Hajime’s perspective. I’m usually not bothered by the male-centeredness of most Murakami novels or the lack of real characteristics he gives his female characters as the protagonist’s story feels universally relatable to me. I’m not saying that this character wasn’t, I just found myself more interested in Shimamoto this time around.

It’s a safe book for first-time Murakami readers but it’s definitely not his best. The book itself is still very much a Murakami novel and I still found enjoyment in it.

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

You finally get the back story on the elusive Sheepman.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 300 pages.
Read from April 20, 2020 to May 5 2020.

You finally get the back story on the elusive Sheepman in this book. Despite being a major focal point throughout the whole Rat series, little was known about him and he made few appearances through the series. The Sheepman even turns up in a book outside of the series in another one of Murakami’s works outside of this series but was published around the same time, The Strange Library, in a connection I have yet to determine.

If you’ve not read Murakami or a book in this series before you may be wondering how the heck a Sheepman fits into any story, even an absurdist reality as this one, well, it does. Strange, yes but that’s what Murakami does best.

Here’s an image of the Sheepman directly from the 1989 version of A Wild Sheep Chase.

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Why a sheep? I honestly couldn’t say but the title of this book is quite literal as the main unnamed male protagonist is blackmailed by a strange man representing a company that threatens him with losing everything if he doesn’t go and find this sheep that is in a photograph he published with his advertising company. The image, which he received from the Rat, his friend that disappeared a few years back and is detailed in the two previous books in this series, Hear the Wind Sing (The Rat #1) and Pinball 1973 (The Rat #2), is somehow tied to all of of this. On his search, much to his surprise, the protagonist finds others along the way who are obsessed with the concept of this Sheepman as well.  In the midst of all of this, the main character is going through the process of a divorce with his wife and meets a call girl with a strange allure. By all appearances she is very average, that is until you get a glimpse of her irresistible ears. While the story of his girlfriend trails off in this novel, it resumes in the fourth and final instalment of his series Dance Dance DanceDoes the protagonist find this Sheepman? And what will happen when he does find him? What will it all mean for him in the end?

Superior to the first two novels of the series, this story was by far more interesting and captivating. I really didn’t care much for the first two books, if I’m honest, but this one reads well and lends itself well to the final instalment of the series as well. I’d say this book is my favourite of the four because as a reader, you’re more connected to the protagonist in this story and you start to see the full spectrum of the story with the Rat the protagonist and the coming of age story that it really becomes. This novel, in a way, is like a peculiar vision quest that the protagonist takes with all the people he meets along the way playing a part in its conclusion and shaping who he becomes.

The Rat series is not one I would recommend a newbie of Murakami to. The first two books are some of the first he ever published and I feel he really comes into his craft a little later. For Murakami lovers, however, I feel that this an essential series to read to really get a feel for Murakami’s writing style and progress. The protagonist feels familiar because many of the other books Murakami write have similar characteristics to the one in this series, whether that’s with age, being a divorcee, and other personality traits and similarities. I feel that this series was likely the first one to establish this character that we, as Murakami readers, have come to love.

Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 362 pages.
Read from December 29, 2019 to December 30, 2019.

Dammit, dammit, dammit. I have read this series out of order. I thought this was number three in The Rat series but it turns out it’s the fourth. While I wasn’t a big fan of Pinball or Hear The Wind Sing I like to read everything that Murakami has to offer and this book was an improvement on the previous two. Apparently, the third book of the four is actually A Wild Sheep Chase which I’m still on the waiting list for at the library.

The unnamed protagonist of this story, after waking from a dream, suddenly feels beckoned to return to the seedy Dolphin Hotel where he once stayed with a woman he cared about in his past, a call-girl named Kiki.  His writing gig allows him a lot of flexibility so he decides he is going to book in for a few nights. He discovers that the hotel itself has been demolished and a new one has been built on top of it yet it still retains the same name. While at the hotel he tries to enquire about the previous owner but the staff all try to avoid his questions. He has dreams about a sheep man and Kiki being murdered by one of his old classmates that has become a famous actor. Along the way, the protagonist gets friendly with one of the hotel staff members in which she speaks of getting trapped in the darkness after coming out of the elevator on floor seventeen and be terrified after coming in contact with a presence there. The protagonist also helps out a teen girl who gets left behind at the hotel by her whose absent mother, a famous artist who gets wrapped up in her work. The interlinking of all of these lives and strange occurrences all lead back to the Sheep Man, presumably the figure on floor seventeen of the Dolphin Hotel.

How much of this story was in the mind of the protagonist? How much of it was actually real for him? These are answers that are left for the reader to determine. The book seems to focus on the protagonists’ issues in connecting with people and of course with those that he has lost as a result of it.  Like most Murakami books, nothing ends or is wrapped up nicely for you. Again though, I think that is one of the strange major appeals for me with Murakami. Did I fully grasp the story and what and why everything happened? Nope. But I still enjoyed the journey.  There was a serious lack of cats in this story, which, was disappointing. There are just somethings you come to expect when you read Murakami! Cats are one of them.

While I suppose it’s not essential to read this series in order, the characters do repeat and somewhat develop even if the storyline seems confusing. If you’re a first time Murakami reader, I would not start with this book or this series for that matter.  Stick with the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.