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

In brief: Hajime reminisces on the women of his youth. All is well until his childhood friend, Shimamoto returns to his life – how will Hajime react to a second chance?

The good: Vintage Murakami – the love, loss, longing and rumination.

The not-so-good: Some may find similar tones to Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart.

Why I chose it: I love Murakami’s writing and am eagerly awaiting his next book.

Year: 1998 (English translation)

Pages: 187

Publisher: Vintage Books

Setting: Japan

My rating: 9 out of 10

With a new Haruki Murakami book being released in Australia on August 12th 2014 (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage); I thought it was high time I jumped into my Murakami stash. I love Murakami’s writing; it’s something I never want to run out of (hence my pile of his books that I read and savour slowly on occasions).

For those of you who have read 1Q84, Norwegian Wood or even Sputnik Sweetheart, you might think the plot of South of the Border, West of the Sun is sounding a little tired. The book revolves around Hajime and the women of the youth and early adulthood. He reflects on these girls later on in his years (he’s now happily married with children), but there’s one girl he keeps coming back to. Shimamoto. They hung out together as children – they were both only children and seemed drawn to each other. They listened to her father’s records together. Then Haijime’s family moved a little further away and Hajime went to a different school. It was an innocent time, but he’s never forgotten her. Nor has Hajime seen her, except for one very odd time before he was married.

Now the successful owner of two jazz bars in Tokyo, Hajime is surprised and pleased to meet Shimamoto again one night. He begins to crave their time together, but Shimamoto is evasive and her visits sporadic. Hajime’s life begins to revolve around Shimamoto again, but will he throw his life away for a second chance with her? Why does Shimamoto come and go? What is her secret?

I’ve heard this book described as Murakami’s most autobiographical novel, but I can’t comment. Yes, there is a similarity between the jazz bar but otherwise… Obviously lost love and what if? plays a large role in many of Murakami’s works, but I didn’t find this repetitive or similar to the above books. Murakami’s words are beautiful lyrics floating up off the page and he weaves a spell so that you are at one with the book. While you read his words, you are part of this mysterious, wondrous world that sparkles just a little bit brighter than your day to day monotony. There are also dark corners, ones that Murakami encourages you to explore on your own – he’s the type of author who suggests things, rather than hit you with the absolute truth.

So while we may not get all the answers as to why Hajime and Shimamoto act the way they do, we’re still taken on a beautiful journey full of emotions – love, joy, pain and deception. It’s a rare thing to be able to convey such intense feeling across the page, but Murakami does it with skill (and Philip Gabriel translates it perfectly).

This is a slim read, but one with words and emotions to savour long after you’ve closed the book.

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