South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
As a boy Hajime always felt detached from other children as being an only child felt like an affliction. When Shimamoto, another only child, joined his class they found a connection and spent afternoons together listening to records as her parent’s house.
Now in his 30s, Hajime is married with two children and owns two jazz clubs. His life seems idyllic but he is yearning for more. One day Shimamoto suddenly breezes into his life again…
First impressions: I’m not really a fan of journeys back to childhood but I found the first part of this short novel quite interesting, mainly because of the ‘only child syndrome’ Hajime experienced
Highlights: The novel was easy to read and parts of it have kept me wondering, specifically the abstract enigmas that are Shimamoto and Hajime’s other ex-girlfriend, Izume. Interestingly, I felt little curiosity for his wife Yukiko. By the end of the novel there was so much more you could wonder about Hajime based solely on his adult relationship with Shimamoto.
If I was an editor: I would assume this novel embraces they ‘typical Murakami’ syndrome, although this is only the second one of his that I have read! The story tumbles into the vortex that is Hajime’s mid life crisis and I found the silences frustrating: the adult Shimamoto was so intriguing yet we know so little about her. This is the same for Izume. I also would have liked more information about the post-war Japan Hajime lived in as a boy. However, the point of the novel is to accentuate Hajime’s anguish so in that way it did succeed.
Overall: As Murakami is a Jazz connoisseur, is the novel part biographical, a personal indulgence, an easy to write setting, or a combination of all three?
South of the Border, West of the Sun: 4 stars
The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa
I usually steer clear of books about food healing the soul and I didn’t particularly enjoy Like Water for Chocolate. However, I had a copy of this novel and thought it would be a good addition to my Japanese Literature Challenge.
Rinko returns home from work to discover her apartment empty and her boyfriend gone. The shock causes her to lose the abiltiy to speak. With nothing left she decides to return to her home village and open a restaurant with only one table so that she can concentrate fully on her customers and prepare dishes that will ease their woes.
First Impressions: I really liked the fact that Rinko worked in a Turkish restaurant and her boyfriend was the maitre d’ from the Indian restaurant next door. I wasn’t expecting this multiculturalism from a Japanese novel. Intriguing!
Highlights: I just really liked the way the story bumbled along. It wasn’t really so much about food but a quaint village story. Rinko’s mutism didn’t hinder the story in any way and it was easy to forget this fact; only every so often were you reminded. One quirky detail of the novel that made me smile was that the mum’s managerial boyfriend also held a blowfish license for the deadly fugu fish.
If I was an editor: As the food preparation went into so much detail, I would put a warning to vegetarians and the squeamish (although this detail didn’t bother me). I would also want more background about the relationship with the Indian ex-boyfriend as it sounds so interesting in a Japanese novel. As most of Rinko’s experience seemed to be in a Turkish restaurant, I did wonder how she knew the fine art of so many ingredients and dishes.
Overall: A really touching and enjoyable read.
The Restaurant of Love Regained: 4 stars
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen
I love Pushkin Press and was thrilled to see them publish a Finnish novel in translation.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society is an exclusive club in the town of Rabbit Back. Children’s author Laura White selects and trains the members who all become exceptional authors. Language teacher Ella is delighted to become the tenth member but her admission into the society makes her aware of murder and mayhem. Can she get to the bottom of Laura White’s disappearance from the winter party?
First Impressions: I liked the character of Ella and I liked the way the author included lots of irrelevant detail about different characters and events such as Ella’s barren ovaries. (This is revealed the first page or two, it’s not a spoiler!).
Highlights: I liked the way the fantasy elements were like blurred edges around the story. Blink and you miss them. Fantasy for non-fantasy reading adults.
If I was an editor: I would wish I cared more for the mysteries of Laura White and her Society. I didn’t dislike reading this novel but I didn’t find the elusiveness of Laura White
(Tove Jansson?) particularly compelling. Most of the information was revealed through exposition which can become a bit boring. At one point it did seem that the plot was going to become a murder mystery but that only seemed to raise my hopes. I had also hoped for a stronger Finnish setting as so few contemporary Finnish novels are translated into English.
Overall: A clever novel with an original plot but I did not find it as captivating as I had hoped.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society: 3 Stars
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
Yasuko lives a quiet life in Tokyo with her daughter. Her ex-husband arrives one day to cause trouble and Yasuko takes the situation into her own hands. When Detective Kusanagi begins to investigate, Yasuko’s seedier earlier life is revealed and the case turns into a battle between two superior logicians: Yasuko’s neighbour and Kusanagi’s university friend. Who will be first to solve the cryptic crime?
First Impressions: I wasn’t sure if I would like this book in the first few pages as it seemed quite simplistic. However, very quickly began to like the tone of the story and the writing style.
Highlights: The Tokyo setting is great and I enjoyed the cat and mouse crime solving of two men worthy of giving Sherlock a run for his money. My favourite element of the novel was definitely the characters as they were all so unique and realistic, particularly Yasuko’s mathematician neighbour.
If I was an editor: I would think this was wonderfully translated. The ending is fitting for a Japanese novel but is probably too much an abstract statement for a lot of western readers. However, it is all tied up well and I didn’t feel disappointed.
Overall: A cryptic page turner that keeps you thinking. I will read more by this author.
The Devotion of Suspect X: 4 Stars