Sunday Review: Kafka on the Shore

If you are a regular reader of Writerly Life, you may remember that I fell head over heels for Haruki Muakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It was a gripping and multi-layered novel that spanned several different worlds, different generations, and different characters, all the while maintaining a noirish sense of plot and suspense. Murakami’s skill with plot is breathtaking, and while I can’t speak for his skill with prose in the original Japanese, I can say I was utterly captivated by this translation and the ideas in it. So naturally, I was very eager to pick up another one of his acclaimed novels, Kafka on the Shore. I’m pleased to say that while it didn’t bowl me over quite as much as Wind-Up Bird, Kafka on the Shore is another gripping, intricately plotted and dreamlike journey that is well-worth taking.

The novel begins from the point of view of a young teenager who has decided to run away from home. He hates his father for murky or poorly-understood reasons, his mother long ago disappeared, and he knows it’s time to leave. He begins a desperate flight across Japan, searching for a way to escape a prophesy about his life. As usual, Murakami grabs us not only with the subtle poignancies of his characters’ lives, but with simple compelling action, drama, and suspense. I was kept eagerly turning the pages, wondering whether this boy would make his escape successfully and what he was running from.

Just as you’re getting comfortable in this story, another story unfolds — that of the mentally handicapped man who lives in the same area, and who can talk to cats. In his past he has a strange occurrence that changed him forever, and now, years later, he finds himself in the grip of an even stranger destiny. His story begins to rise and converge with the runaway teen’s story, becoming unexpectedly surreal, metaphysical, and tense. The novel deals with some weighty but familiar questions about death, the afterlife, and oedipal prophesies. In its own way, the book asks whether we can escape the fates that seem laid out for us, and whether true evil exists in the world. In this way, Kafka on the Shore seemed less subtle and nuanced than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; once a purely evil character enters the story, it can effectively shut down that storyline, making it no longer morally ambiguous. But this is a relatively small quibble; the remarkable pleasure of Murakami’s books is in their sense of pacing. Each scene and storyline gave me something new to feel tense about, which is the sign of a very tightly plotted novel.

I’m very excited to read more works by Murakami, and I hope you’ll consider picking up either one of these gripping books.

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