How can you review a book like 1Q84? Haruki Murakami (as far as I can tell, no relation to Ryu Murakami) is by all accounts usually quite esoteric. Certainly Sputnik Sweetheart, the only of his other works I’ve read, was pretty darn weird, but 1Q84 blows it out of the water.
The vaguest premise of the book, because the plot is so multifaceted and mysterious, is that it follows the lives of two thirty-somethings in Tokyo in 1984. Aomame, a young woman who is by day a fitness instructor and by night an assassin wreaking vengeance on abusers and murderers of women, and Tengo, a maths teacher who aspires to be a novelist, and spends his spare time as an editor for a literature magazine. For Aomame, the catalyst begins when she is obliged to climb down the emergency escape on the Tokyo expressway. Her taxi driver makes an offhand comment about how doing things like this, things that no one just does, causes you to see reality different, a fact that Aomame eventually discovers to be more true than she realises. For Tengo it is when he is conscripted to redraft a novel submitted to writing competition which get him involved with mystical forces he struggles to understand. It’s all very surreal.
The scale of 1Q84 is a little hard to come to terms with, because not only is it a very long book (actually, this volume is the combination of the first two in a trilogy published separately in Japanese), but the plot which at first seems quite linear and straightforward, is layered on a mythology that is practically impenetrable. Hints are scattered throughout the book as to the identity, the goals and the methods of the forces acting against the world, but the little cohesive explanation we get doesn’t make things much clearer, and as with all good stories, leaves us with more questions than answers. That said, the way that Murakami manages to drop hints to things that only become clear much later on is particularly good. I imagine that if you were prone to piecing together evidence as you’re reading (which I think my review of Murder on the Orient Express proves I am not), then some of the revelations won’t be particularly surprising,
There were a few issues with 1Q84, but they were generally rather minor. The worst was the rather graphic sex was particularly off-putting, not because I’m particularly prudish about that sort of thing, but because within the context of the plot (which I don’t want to spoil), its connotations are quite horrifying. The others are small in comparison, mostly issues of pacing. Though the books didn’t feel like they dragged too much, there were a few ideas that I felt were a little belaboured, and despite my praise for Murakami’s foreshadowing before, some it lasted a bit too long and the transition between suggestion and stating outright could be improved. But in a book over 800 pages long, the fact that’s all I can think of is impressive in and of itself.
I just want to close out the review with a discussion of the way 1Q84 has been published. The original Japanese trilogy was published as separate editions, with volumes 1 and 2 released simultaneously in May 2009 with 3 released in April 2010. In the USA, all three books were released in a single book on October 25th 2011, while in the UK (which uses the same translations as the US editions), books 1 & 2 (the subject of this review) were released the same year on October 18th, and book 3 on October 25th. Try as I might, I can’t get my head round the logic of these disparate methods. They clearly appear to have been written as separate books, 1 and 2 both end with the sort of climaxes that you’d expect from the first two volumes in a trilogy. I can kind of understand the UK style, because books 1 and 2 use a different translator from book 3 (as a side note, Haruki Murakami has his own dedicate translators, even though he has translated English books into Japanese himself. How cool is that?), but the US format makes no sense, considering publishers generally don’t like doorstoppers that size. I don’t have an answer to this, but if anyone from Knopf or Harvill Secker happens to read this, I’d be interested to know.
I’m definitely looking forward to reading the final volume of the story of 1Q84, though I honestly have no idea where it’s going or how it could be resolved. I’d definitely recommend reading it, though it’s not the sort of novel that you can just pick up and put down; some investment is required, and though it’s not a book that’s difficult to read as such, there’s so much going on that reading it is sometimes a bit of a challenge.