Title: The Strange Library
Author: Haruki Murakami
Illustrator: Maki Sasaki
Genre: Fiction, magical realism
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: This is the simple and seemingly straight-forward story about a boy who goes to the library to return a book and finds himself briefly wondering how the Ottoman tax collection system works (as young boys often do). The request for these particular books sends him to an unknown part of the library and to a creepy old man, who escorts him through a giant confusing labyrinth to an underground reading room, which in fact turns out to be a prison cell. Aided by a couple of unlikely helpers, the boy must escape the library before his death sentence is up.
“Ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up.”
– The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami
I think this is one of the Murakami books where I’m okay with having the “wrong” edition. I absolutely love the redesigned Vintage Murakami books, which have distinct minimalist covers illustrated by Noma Bar, so it’s become a bit of a habit for me to collect them. Usually I’d get all restless over a difference like this but I’m so delighted with having this edition that it’s totally fine. With this Random House edition you kind of have to unclasp it in the front and unfold the front pages. It’s like unpacking a book, or rather a story, and I love it.
This is a rather unusual Murakami book, both in writing and in format. It’s illustrated throughout by Maki Sasaki, and with its quirky cover and large font it does at first glance resemble a children’s book. I wouldn’t say it’s suitable for very young children, but that said, it sometimes gave me sort of the same creepy vibe as Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” (please note I’ve currently only seen the movie adaption of this but I’m hoping to read the book soon). I guess children read with a different mindset than adults anyway, so in the end there are bits and pieces here for a wide range of age groups. The writing is simple, like Murakami’s writing often is, but it’s probably even simpler in this book. It’s also not a very thick book, with the illustrations taking up several pages, so it’s a quick read you can easily finish in well under an hour if you want.
While you this time might not find all of the usual elements that tend to repeat themselves in Murakami’s work, there are a few hints towards his previous novels, for example the character Sheep Man (“A Wild Sheep Chase”, “Dance Dance Dance”), and the role of the starling, which made me think of the significance of the bird in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”. However you still get the sense of surrealism and magical realism that’s so typical of Murakami.
For me, what really made this a worthwhile read were the beautiful illustrations by Maki Sasaki. There are plenty of them and they just fit the content so perfectly, even though most of them are only loosely related to the actual content. They’re just so wonderfully strange and surreal they’re almost the essence of Murakami’s writing illustrated.
(Images taken by me.)
For some it might be an enjoyable read without them too, but personally it would have been too simple, too short, and not creepy enough for me. The ending is pretty conclusive but, without spoiling, it’s this ending I mostly think about when I say it’s not a book particularly suited for kids.
This is a great collectible for Murakami fans, but overall I feel like the story falls somewhere between its unsuitability for children and its underdevelopment and simplicity for adults, and thus it’s a bit hard to place. It relies heavily on its format and especially the illustrations, but these on the other hand I found so wonderful and beautiful and weird I gave it a (weak) 4 out of 5 stars regardless.