I feel immensely strange writing this book review. South of the Border, West of the Sun is the first of Haruki Murakami’s books that I have read. I had high hopes for it but was left bitterly disappointed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve harboured such negative feelings towards a book for a long time. I’ll use this post to try to articulate why.
The book centres on Hajime, an entirely ordinary and dull person who, despite being so dull, has managed to get himself a loving wife and daughter and now owns two seemingly popular jazz bars in a wealthy neighbourhood of Tokyo. He treats the people (particularly women) in his life badly but somehow gets away with it and does little to atone for it.
Through his first-person narration, we hear about the key moments in his life – mainly focusing on three important women. The first is Shimamoto, his childhood friend, who reappears suddenly when the narrator is in his thirties. She brings with her an air of mystery and intrigue which fails to materialise into anything particularly remarkable.
There’s something rather despicable about Hajime, and it’s not just from his actions (mainly his cheating on his partners). However, he’s not what I would call an “anti-hero” either. Perhaps he’s not quite interesting enough to be intensely disliked, but he didn’t arouse any sympathy or interest from me.
The portrayal of women in the book was disappointing. The female characters seem to function as props to the main character’s whims or desires. Few have any well-developed traits. Presumably (or hopefully), Murakami did this to illustrate Hajime’s flaws and understanding of women, but it’s hardly original or interesting.
Hajime’s teenage girlfriend Izumi and, later, his wife Yukiko, are fairly meek and innocent creatures. Hajime plays out his desires on each of them, but we rarely gain an insight into their own wants or desires. Sex is an important theme in the book, but the sex scenes mostly read like a teenage boy’s fantasy.
Shimamoto appears to be more exceptional. As a child, she is described as tough and hard-working. When she reappears later in the story she is enigmatic, and we find out little about her life in the intervening years. Far from building a strong, interesting character, this seems like a lazy attempt to give the impression that there is more to the story than the author has really created.
One of the early chapters ends with the following:
“She’s not Shimamoto, I told myself. She can’t give me what Shimamoto gave. But here she is, all mine, trying her best to give me all she can. How could I ever hurt her?
But I didn’t understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.”
This seemed to be a promise of something deep and meaningful in the chapters to come. Indeed, Hajime does hurt Izumi, who he was describing here, but he never does anything to help her or make up for his actions.
The first half of the book lacks action and intrigue. This isn’t necessarily a bad feature of a book if an author can create something profound in the pages, however small or simple. However, the lack of action isn’t made up for by any particularly insightful thoughts on the part of the narrator. Nor is the reader swept through this first half on the back of beautiful prose that some writers adopt to hide a lack of plot.
Although the second half of the book appears to be heading somewhere, the ending it reaches is fairly unsurprising and unoriginal. The mysterious elements translated into very little.
But here’s a surprising thing. I read this book like a woman possessed. I didn’t want to stop. Despite my feelings towards the characters and the slow pace, I ate this book up like it was the most dramatic edge-of-your-seat book I’d read in months.
As I mentioned, this is the first of Murakami’s books that I’d read, but I’d heard good things about him. Maybe that is why I read it with such frantic energy. I felt that I was in good hands; that the book would reveal something magical somewhere along the line. For me, it failed. However, I’ve read enough good reviews on this book to wonder whether I missed something…
And there ends my somewhat confused review of South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami. I plan to read more of his work in the near future because I’m certain that there must be more to this acclaimed writer than I’ve managed to discover in this particular book.
A friend of mine recently recommended Norwegian Wood, so I might try that and hope that it proves more enjoyable than South of the Border.
If you have any recommendations please share them with me in the comments!