The Situation: In high school, Tsukuru and his four friends were inseparable. Consisting of three boys and two girls - Tsukuru, Akamatsu, Oumi, Shirane, and Kurono - the five of them not only went to school together, but they also volunteered together after school tutoring elementary school kids. Akamatsu, which means "red pine" in Japanese, was the one with the best grades. Oumi, which means "blue sea," was the most athletic. Shirane, which means "white root," is the most beautiful of the two girls, and a fantastic piano player. And Kurono, which means "black field," was independent and tough, with a great sense of humor, and always had a book under her arm. Tsukuru is the only one of the five friends whose name is not associated with a color. He also felt that he was the only one without anything special about him. Even so, the five remained close throughout high school, and even tried to stay together once they all went off to separate colleges. The four colors remained in the town of Nagoya, while only Tsukuru went to school in big city Tokyo. But they still managed to write to him, and he always visited them when he went home.
The Problem: On one visit home during his sophomore year, Tsukuru attempts to contact all four of his friends, only to be forced to leave messages. Eventually, after not being able to get in touch with any of them, Ao (blue) informs Tsukuru that he is being kicked out of the group. The reason? Ao simply states that it isn't something he can tell him, and if Tsukuru wants to know what happened, that he better ask himself about it. Tsukuru can't imagine what Ao is talking about, and being exiled from his closest group of friends causes him to consider suicide for the next half year or so. He eventually moves forward, but even now, at the age of 36, Tsukuru has never made a friend quite like the four he had in high school, and other than a few girlfriends here and there, he really hasn't had any significant relationships. It is Sara, his latest girlfriend, who pushes him to go back to Nagoya and try to find out what exactly happened. But at this point, is it too late?
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern day Japan. Like other works by Murakami, there is a sense of having to reach across time, in this instance into the past, in order to fix something that doesn't seem quite right in the present. Tsukuru's girlfriend Sara believes that never having solved the mystery of why he was exiled is holding him back even now that he is approaching middle age. She also believes it is what is keeping their relationship from moving forward. So she encourages him to seek out his former friends and finally learn what happened between them. Throughout the story, there are also familiar elements that are often found in Murakami's other novels like weird dreams, cooking, charismatic but less than likable leaders, and a somewhat clueless male protagonist attempting to find his true purpose in life, or if he even has one. This is also the third book that I have read by Murakami that includes some instance of sex while paralyzed and/or dreaming. I can't recall if this happens in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as well, but it is certainly in Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. It's now just something I have come to expect with his books. And while the story mostly focuses on the present day, there is much reminiscing about Tsukuru's college years, especially the time immediately following his exile from the group, and how he eventually survived it. It is a question of how far we decide to dig for the truth before we let it go and just try to live our lives.
My Verdict: Given that this is a Murakami novel, and how much I have enjoyed his other works, I wanted to like this book much more than I did. Just the cover alone gave me high hopes. I know, I know, I really should know better than to judge a book by its cover, but it is pretty spectacular. Even so, the story is actually kind of boring. Not a lot happens, which is a shame because the premise is pretty fascinating. Having a character go back to his hometown to investigate what caused his closest friends to cut him off certainly sounds intriguing to me. And while there is much discovery and introspection during Tsukuru's "pilgrimage," and all is eventually revealed, there really isn't much in the revelation, or much that really comes out of it. The build-up felt similar to other Murakami novels I have read, but then that build up just kind of fades away with no real results. I probably would have been okay with the lack of true resolution if the story had been more interesting, but it wasn't. Thankfully, this book isn't half the size of 1Q84. Still, I expected a lot more from nearly 400 pages of story.
Favorite Moment: When Tsukuru travels to Finland to see Kuro, especially since he has never traveled abroad in his life, and he picks Finland of all places as his first trip.
Favorite Character: Out of Tsukuru and his friends, I pick Kuro as my favorite. Even after everything that has happened, she seems to have adjusted the best and really made a life for herself. She is honest, creative, protective, and sensitive. Ultimately, she is just the person Tsukuru needs to see in order to clear up the past.
Recommended Reading: I came late to the Murakami party, so I can't just pick from his entire library and recommend any of his books, since I have only read a few of them. Of the ones I have read, I will recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is a door stop at 600+ pages. But if you really want a feel for some of Murakami's more recent writing, and you've got some time on your hands, I recommend 1Q84, which clocks in at 900+ pages. Happy reading!