My oldest son is a huge Murakami fan. So of course I treated him to the English translation of the three volumes of 1Q84 when it came out. And of course, ever since, I've been eyeballing the dark, thick book on his bookshelf every time I drop off a pile of clean clothes to his room. With its 925 pages I thought it would be a perfect book for several long slow months of reading, and so I decided to tackle it this summer.
expected a completely unexpected story line peopled by quirky characters who live somewhat marginal lives. I was also looking forward to the way he peppers his books with the most diverse references to music, literature and popular culture. What I also expected and enjoy most about reading Murakami, however, is the little window it gives me into life in Japan: the way he describes the foods they eat and how they prepare them, their homes, public transport, the way people interact with each other, the educational system, and life in general. I have no idea, of course, if the way he writes about these things actually corresponds to how they really are, but his matter-of-factness in describing them rings true somehow, even when his characters are going through the most fantastical experiences at the same time.
1Q84 tells the strange story of Aomame and Tengo as they get caught up in events in a world that is parallel to the real world of Tokyo in 1984. Aomame is a lonely young woman who works as a fitness instructor at a gym but also a hit woman for a mysterious organization. Tengo, an equally solitary young man, teaches math at a Tokyo "cram school" and is an aspiring novelist who gets caught up in rewriting a young girl's strange submission for a literary prize. At first there seems to be no connection between Aomame and Tengo's lives, and their alternating chapters seem to be two separate novels, intertwined. But Murakami has used this technique in previous work (see my blog post on one of his other books) and as the reader senses intuitively, Aomame and Tengo become increasingly important to one another. (For a very detailed plot summary and list of all the characters, click here.)
Book 1 and 2 are gripping and fast paced, and peopled with several interesting characters. It is also in the first two books that the reader is exposed to the fascinating properties of the parallel world, as well as the life stories of Aomame and Tengo. Book 3 is slower and somewhat repetitive, doesn't really add any new elements to the story, and we learn nothing more of some of the more intriguing and important side characters - they seem to just vanish into thin air. But after already investing myself in the first two thirds of the trilogy, I was highly motivated to get to the end and find out what happened to Aomame and Tengo. Because, despite the fantastical twists and turns of the plot and the utter strangeness of the world they inhabit, Murakami is able to make us care about his characters.