Cats, jazz music, food preparation – a few chapters in and fans of Haruki Murakami will already feel in familiar territory, but to the first time reader you may feel yourself being drawn in by a deceptively normal world. Toru Okada seems like a just another normal guy who likes reading, music and the occasional beer. But after leaving his job, losing his cat and losing the feeling of closeness with his wife we begin to wonder whether Okada is also losing his mind.
Through a succession of stories, letters, memories and dreams from a wide cast of intriguing characters we are taken by Okada on a bizarre and surreal journey that poses more questions about than it answers. Violent and brutal in parts, yet touching and amusing in others The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is hard to define. Historical novel, science fiction, a tale of self-discovery, all these elements are there and work together to make what is ultimately an exciting and perplexing read.
Once I started reading this book I couldn’t put it down, and as you can tell from the photograph below, my copy took a particularity hard beating. (An incident involving an exploding coke bottle in my bag was almost fatal; luckily paperbacks are apparently quite absorbent.) Whether I was walking back from work, on my lunch or on a bus I found myself easily delving into Murikami’s weird dense world of dreams, multiple realities and bent tailed cats.
I believe the main strength of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the characters. There is a fantastic cast of interesting and believable characters all with their own quirks, complexities and stories to tell. From mysterious and alluring women, to regret filled WW2 veterans, and from a rebellious stay at home teen to the slimy and socially inept Ushikawa, there is a mesmerizingly varied cast of characters that keep you absorbed and turning the pages. All of the characters leave you with a sense that all is not as it seems contributing further to the surreal feel of the book. With a few possible exceptions there are no real villains or heroes in the book, all have good traits and all have flickers of darkness. Which makes them all the more believable amongst all the surreal happenings and strangeness.
There are motifs, themes and ideas that Murakami continually comes back to again and again throughout his novels. Every fan seems to have their favourite, (cats more often than not) but for me, his attention to detail when describing how his characters are dressed is one that always absorbs my interest, especially in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Murakami is an author who understands the aesthetic value of clothes and often goes into great detail about the specifics of what his characters are wearing, from the ordinary (increasingly scruffy tennis shoes) to the extra-ordinary or bizarre (red vinyl hats). Descriptions of what characters are wearing are nothing new or remarkable of course, but Murakami, more than most, seems to suggest that what we choose to wear can often be an important and telling insight into our character or mindset on any given day. The impeccably dressed ‘Cinnamon’ and his fashion designer mother ‘Nutmeg’ for example, are always outwardly pristine and perfectly well put together, but together they are two of the most intriguing and mysterious characters in the novel. What this tells us about their character, and whether these appearances are deceptive or not is left to us to guess as Murikami gradually drip feeds details and information that helps unpick the mystery.
Ultimately it is these layers of mystery, reality and unreality that what make this book such an absorbing and involving read. Even as Okada performs the most normal of tasks such as cooking dinner or feeding his cat, a sense of the unreal pervades throughout the book. A seemingly normal every day guy ends up taking us on a bizarre journey that tackles such themes as loss, death, obsession, power and war, with us never quite really knowing for sure what is reality and what isn’t. With this in mind I wouldn’t say it’s a novel that lends itself to causal reading in short spread out bursts, if you’re going to descend down Murakami’s strange well, you need to go all the way down.
For Fans of: David Mitchell, Charles Bukowski, Ryu Murikami, Cats.
Worth a hoot?: Definitely recommended.
Will you be giving The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle a read? What was your favourite aspect of the book? Is there any authors I should know about that have been glaringly left out of the “For Fans of” section?