Title: South of the Border, West of the Sun
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Fiction, speculative fiction
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Bokkilden.
My rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: Hajime grew up in the suburbs of post-war Japan as an only child. His only friend was Shimamoto, also an only child. They grew close and spent long afternoons together talking and listening to records, but when Hajime moved away they lost touch. Now Hajime is in his mid-thirties. He’s married to a loving wife, he has two small daughters, and he’s running two successful jazz bars in Aoyama, Tokyo. One day, out of the blue, Shimamoto reappears. She is now a beautiful although mysterious woman, and their meeting forces Hajime to jeopardize everything he has achieved in the present.
“You’re here. At least you look as if you’re here. But maybe you aren’t. Maybe it’s just your shadow. The real you may be someplace else. Or maybe you already disappeared, a long, long time ago. I reach out my hand to see, but you’ve hidden yourself behind a cloud of probablys. Do you think we can go on like this forever?”
– South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami
After a long and steady period of either loving or really loving the Murakami books I’ve read, I’ve been waiting for the one book of his that I’d like to a certain degree but nothing more than that. So far this is that book (not counting his two-in-one novellas “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973” because they’re such early works and so different in style that they’re hard to even recognize as Murakami). I didn’t find “South of the Border, West of the Sun” to be all that solid and it fails to offer that little extra bit of magic that most of his other books possess.
“South of the Border, West of the Sun” is written in the same vein as the famous “Norwegian Wood” and is lacking Murakami’s whimsical use of magical realism, which is by no means a bad thing. I personally prefer the magical realism to the realism, but I can appreciate the absence of it, so when I say it’s missing its magic I mean it’s missing that extra little something. The writing is beautiful through and through, and while it has some familiar Murakami elements in a mostly straightforward universe where loss and love and longing are major themes, I soon found that this was a book I could put down afterwards without it lingering all that much in my mind.
I think the biggest reason for my struggle with properly getting into this book was the two main characters, Hajime and Shimamoto. I generally have a really hard time scraping together the least bit of sympathy for characters who cheat, both for the one doing the cheating and the one enabling it. It was implied in the book’s summary that it would lean this way, and it’s not like the usual Murakami protagonist is all that much of a saint when it comes to relationships, but it’s a thing that works poorly both in real life and as a plot device. That said though, if I were to see past all that, I still didn’t find Hajime and Shimamoto to be engaging characters. Hajime is overall hard to sympathize with – I see bits and pieces of other protagonists from other books in him, as expected, but to me he remains a lot more passive and too universal regarding the whole approaching midlife-crisis deal. As for Shimamoto, I have no problems with her being the “mysterious woman” of the story, but ironically she became too mysterious without any other traits or explanations that I eventually lost my interest in her character as opposed to wanting to know more.
Speaking of explanations, I’m used to and mostly perfectly fine with not necessarily being offered said explanations in a Murakami book. I respect and enjoy the open endings and the vague conclusions that are drawn – or that you as a reader must draw yourself. Even when reading the open ending of a Murakami book I still get a satisfactory feeling from it and I have no problems accepting it for what it is, but I felt he failed to do that for me with this book. There are some loose ends that could really use some tying up, especially since it’s so realistic in its plot and relied so heavily on the mystery surrounding Shimamoto.
Overall this is not a terrible book or anything. Like I said the writing is gorgeous and there were many passages that I really enjoyed. There were also other characters that I liked and sympathized with (Hajime’s wife Yukiko), or found interesting and would have liked to know more about (Izumi, Hajime’s ex-girlfriend from when he was younger). Still, if the main characters fail to properly connect you to the story then you already have a fundamental weakness right there. I recommend this book for Murakami fans who have already read the majority of his well-known works. If you’re starting out then this isn’t the book I would choose – in that case I recommend “Kafka on the Shore” or “A Wild Sheep Chase” for those books with magical realism, and “Norwegian Wood”, “Sputnik Sweetheart”, or “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage” for those books without.