South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by David Hannon
"My birthday's the fourth of January, 1951. The first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the twentieth century. Something to commemorate, I guess, which is why my parents named me Hajime -- 'beginning,' in Japanese." This is the first line of the book, and it's our introduction to Hajime, an only child living with his mother and father in a prosperous suburb of Tokyo. Hajime detests the stereotype that only children are obnoxious spoiled brats, and does what he can to avoid appearing in that light. Soon he meets Shimamoto, an only child herself who, though she drags her leg when she walks, seems to lack no confidence. The two are inseparable, walking home from school together, listening to records, and having intense and imaginative conversations ranging from cats, to music to having children. It's the simplest and happiest time of their lives, but being young they take it for granted and before long her family moves away and it's over.
Fast forward many years, Hajime is older, he's married, has two children, and owns a couple of nice jazz clubs. He has a happy, benign existence, but has never again felt anything near the kind of bond he had with Shimamoto. He thinks he catches sight of her once, but he's not sure, and again she vanishes. Many more years go by before she actually does come back into his life. Having become strikingly beautiful, Shimamoto is still not so different from the girl he knew growing up, but from the moment of her return Hajime's life begins to unravel. He can't concentrate, loses interest in his wife and family, and spends his time just waiting for a chance to be with her. His obsession begins to break him down, yet he continues to follow the path set before him, unaware of where it will ultimately lead.
A dark assemblage of the wonderfully flawed characters we've come to expect from Japan's reigning master of the surreal, South of the Border is completely absorbing despite its somewhat bare premise. Hooked instantly by Murakami's offbeat dialogue and the bizarre yet sweet relationship between Hajime and Shimamoto, I had a hard time putting this book down even for a minute. With such a small cast of characters, Murakami casts a discerning eye on all his subjects leaving no stone unturned and keeping no secrets. If you've read his novels before, you know he likes a good mystery; but this book is much more intimate, and in the end all will be revealed. (Well, almost.)