Haruki Murakami is an author whom I consciously wanted to read during 2017. Prior to picking up South of the Border, West of the Sun from the library, I had read and enjoyed Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, and been a little baffled by The Library Book. This rather short novel has been translated from its original Japanese by Philip Gabriel, and was first published in Japan in 1992, and in its first English translation in 1998.
Our protagonist is Hajime, an only child who grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in postwar Japan. As a child, he was relatively lonely; indeed, his ‘sole companion was Shimamoto, also an only child’. When Hajime’s family choose to move several miles away, however, the pair soon lose touch. When we first meet him, Hajime is in his thirties, and is married with two daughters; his profession is the owner of a jazz bar. It takes him rather by surprise when Shimamoto, ‘beautiful, intense, [and] enveloped in mystery’, and whose first name we never learn, reappears one night.
The pair, perhaps unsurprisingly, begin an affair, which has a strong effect upon Hajime: ‘As I drove away, I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go insane. Once she got out of the car and was gone, my world was suddenly hollow and meaningless’. We are taken right into the mind of Hajime, and are able to see the turmoil and sense of impending doom which he feels: ‘What would become of me tomorrow I did not know. Buying my daughter a horse – the idea took on an unexpected urgency. I had to buy it for her before things disappeared. Before the world fell to pieces’. Despite these insights, I did not really feel as though I knew Hajime very well once I had closed the final page.
South of the Border, West of the Sun is well translated, and just after I began to feel that the prose was too simplistic, there would be a sudden flash of beauty such as this: ‘Her hand, which up till then had lain on the back of the sofa, she now placed on her knee. I stared vacantly at her fingers tracing the plaid pattern of her skirt. There was something curious about it, as if invisible threat emanating from her fingertips was spinning together an entirely new concept of time’.
Whilst not my favourite Murakami, this novel is rather absorbing, and Hajime’s narrative feels highly realistic. There are small puzzles lain in place along the way, and several unanswered questions come to light. This adds a certain depth to the plot, whilst also making the novel more engaging. It is undoubtedly the most interesting from a psychological standpoint, and a lot of analysis could be done, I feel, on the protagonists. There is a lack of emotion at points, but I find that this aspect is often missing with Japanese fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun is multi-layered and well tied together. Despite this, the plot was quite predictable, and the whole, I felt, tended toward underwhelming overall.
Today’s edition of The Book Trail begins with a Deirdre Madden book which I enjoyed even more on my second reading, and takes us through some wondrous looking fiction set in far-flung places.
1. Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden
‘Dublin. Midsummer. While absent in New York, the celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house to a playwright friend, who is struggling to write a new work. Over the course of this, the longest day of the year, the playwright reflects upon her own life, Molly’s, and that of their mutual friend Andrew, whom she has known since university.‘
2. The Language of Others by Clare Morrall
‘The world is a puzzling, sometimes frightening place for Jessica Fontaine. As a child she only finds contentment in playing the piano and wandering alone in the empty spaces of Audlands Hall, the dilapidated country house where she grows up. Twenty-five years later, divorced, with her son still living at home, Jessica remains preoccupied by the desire to create space around her. Then her volatile ex-husband reappears, the first of several surprises that both transform Jessica’s present and give her a startling new perspective on the past.THE LANGUAGE OFOTHERStells the absorbing story of a woman who spends much of her life feeling that she is out of step with the real world, until she discovers why. Related with humour and compassion, it offers a fresh, illuminating insight into what it means to be ‘normal’.‘
3. Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien
‘One starless night, a girl’s childhood was swept away by the terrors of the Khmer Rouge. Exiled from the city, she and her family were forced to live out in the open under constant surveillance. Each night, people were taken away. Caught up in a political storm which brought starvation to millions, tore families apart, and changed the world forever, she lost everyone she loved. Three decades later, Janie’s life in Montreal is unravelling. Haunted by her past, she has abandoned her husband and son and taken refuge in the home of her friend, the brilliant, troubled scientist, Hiroji Matsui. In 1970, Hiroji’s brother, James, travelled to Cambodia and fell in love. Five years later, the Khmer Rouge came to power, and James vanished. Brought together by the losses they endured, Janie and Hiroji had found solace in each another. And then, one strange day, Hiroji disappeared. Engulfed by the memories she thought she had fled, Janie must struggle to find grace in a world overshadowed by the sorrows of her past. Beautifully realized, deeply affecting, Dogs at the Perimeter evokes totalitarianism through the eyes of a little girl and draws a remarkable map of the mind’s battle with memory, loss, and the horrors of war. It confirms Madeleine Thien as one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today.‘
4. The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
‘Kim Echlin’s powerful new novel tells the story of Anne Greves, from Montreal, who meets Serey, a Cambodian student forced into exile when he cannot return home during Pol Pot’s time of terror. Anne and Serey meet in a jazz club where their shared passion for music turns into a passion for each other, against the will of her father. But when the borders of Cambodia open, Serey is compelled to return home, alone, to try to find his family. Left behind, and without word from her lover, Anne tries to build a new life but she cannot forget her first love. She decides to travel to the war-ravaged country that claimed Serey. What she finds there is a traumatized and courageous people struggling to create new freedoms out of the tragedy that claimed their traditional ways, their livelihood, and a seventh of their population. “Despair is an unwitnessed life,” writes Anne as she searches for the truth, about her lover, and about herself. “If we live long enough, we have to tell, or turn to stone inside.” From its first page, The Disappeared takes us into the land of kings and temples, fought over for generations. It reveals the forces that act on love everywhere: family, politics, forgetting. Universal in its questions about how to claim the past, how to honor our dead, and how to go on after those we love disappear, it is a story written in spare and rhythmic prose. The Disappeared is a remarkable consideration of language, truth, justice, and memory that speaks to the conscience of the world, and to love, even when those we love most are gone.‘
5. The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb
‘Tu’ is a young tour guide working in Hanoi for a company called New Dawn. While he leads tourists through the city, including American vets on “war tours,” he starts to wonder what it is they are seeing of Vietnam–and what they miss entirely. Maggie, who is Vietnamese by birth but has lived most her life in the U.S., has returned to her country of origin in search of clues to her dissident father’s disappearance during the war. Holding the story together is Old Man Hung, who has lived through decades of political upheaval and has still found a way to feed hope to his community of pondside dwellers.‘
6. Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
‘In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a backward student, Michael Graves, learn how to read. Observing them and darkening their lives is the principal, Parley Burns, whose strange behaviour culminates in an attack so disturbing its repercussions continue to the present day. Connie’s niece, Anne, tells the story. Impelled by curiosity about her dynamic, adventurous aunt and her more conventional mother, she revisits Connie’s past and her mother’s broken childhood. In the process, she unravels the enigma of Parley Burns and the mysterious (and unrelated) deaths of two young girls. As the novel moves deeper into their lives, the triangle of principal, teacher, student opens out into other emotional triangles – aunt, niece, lover; mother, daughter, granddaughter – until a sudden, capsizing love thrusts Anne herself into a newly independent life. This spellbinding tale – set in Saskatchewan and the Ottawa Valley – crosses generations and cuts to the bone. It probes the roots of obsessive love and hate, how the hurts and desires of childhood persist and are passed on as if in the blood. It lays bare the urgency of discovering what we were never told about the past. And it celebrates the process of becoming who we are in a world full of startling connections that lie just out of sight.‘
7. Requiem by Frances Itani
‘Bin Okuma, a celebrated visual artist, has recently and quite suddenly lost his wife, Lena. He and his son, Greg, are left to deal with the shock. But Greg has returned to his studies on the East Coast, and Bin finds himself alone and pulled into memories he has avoided for much of his life. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, his Japanese Canadian family was displaced from the West Coast. Now, he sets out to drive across the country: to complete the last works needed for an upcoming exhibition; to revisit the places that have shaped him; to find his biological father, who has been lost to him. It has been years since his father made a fateful decision that almost destroyed the family. Now, Bin must ask himself whether he really wants to find him. With the persuasive voice of his wife in his head, and the echo of their great love in his heart, he embarks on an unforgettable journey that encompasses art and music, love and hope.‘
8. Stubborn Season by Lauren B. Davis
‘Where does one person end and the other begin? That’s the question that haunts Irene, a girl growing up in Toronto during the Great Depression. Living with her father, a pharmacist who finds comfort in the bottle, and her mother, a woman teetering on the edge of her own depression, Irene’s crumbling family situation mirrors the economic and social turmoil just beyond the front door of their respectable, working class neighbourhood home. As she grows into a young woman, Irene finds herself consumed by her mother’s increasingly erratic moods and isolated in a world where unemployment, poverty and bigotry have taken firm root. Yet in the midst of lives that seem lost, Irene finds strength in the unlikely form of David, a young man from the Jewish farming community of Sonnenfeld, Saskatchewan, who is fighting his own battle for dignity, hope and a place in the world.‘
Have you read any of these? Which have piqued your interest?
It will come as no surprise, I am sure, to say that I have wanted to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences for such a long time, and my longing to do so was even higher after the Capote Readathon which Lizzi and I created last summer. In Cold Blood is the fifth book upon my Classics Club list, and a fitting final read for my American Literature month. A lot of the information within this stunning piece of non-fiction was included in ‘Capote’, a film which I very much enjoyed. The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare… a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.
Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’. It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children. Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved. At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’. All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.
Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”. Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang… and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’. Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad… After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.
As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid. This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.
The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959. Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters. Anyone less admired. Prosperous. Secure. But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless. I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’. The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described. Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.
The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted. Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers. He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole. In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception. Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect. In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.
There is some gorgeous imagery in The Cat, and some absolutely wonderful scenes. Colette’s writing is stunning, and one gets the feeling that it has been perfectly translated too. It (probably) goes without saying that my favourite character here was Saha, the cat of the book’s title. I felt that she had been perfectly captured, and her actions and mannerisms were so realistic. Colette’s descriptions of Paris, too, are leaving me longing to go back.
The way in which Colette presented male opinions and apprehensions about marriage was incredibly interesting, and so believable, I think. This element stopped the story being merely a collection of commonplace musings upon matters of the heart, and brought in some thought-provoking scenes. The psychological aspects which she weaves in are so well executed, and Colette illustrates wonderfully the power which our animals have over us. All in all, The Cat is a glorious little novella – stunning and rather short, but perfectly written and portrayed.
Instructions for a Heatwave is the sixth novel by acclaimed Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. In it, she presents an ‘intimate portrait of a family in crisis’. This crisis is found not only in her characters, but in the setting too, taking part as it does during the London heatwave of July 1976. As one might expect, this heat is like a character throughout the book, its presence stifling: ‘The heat, the heat… It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome; it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs’.
The novel opens with Irish housewife Gretta, one of the main characters in the book and without whom the story would not be able to unfold in quite the way it does. She is described as ‘so overweight, so eccentrically dressed, so loud, so uninhibited, so wild-haired, so keen to tell everyone her life story’. At the beginning of the book, headstrong Gretta is baking bread in the fierce heat: ‘She is in her nightdress, hair still wound into curlers… She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that’. Gretta and her quiet husband Robert Riordan have been married for over thirty years, and are the parents of a son and two daughters – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife, all of whom are off in the big wide world, living their own lives. The relationship of their parents is a happy one, filled with ‘small acts of kindness that [make] people know they are loved’.
On the pivotal July morning in which the novel opens, London has been in the midst of a heatwave for several days. The citizens are listless and lethargic, and even the smallest acts outside seem like heroic feats. Robert goes out to buy the newspaper at the exact time that he always does, and fails to return. The three children are drafted in from their various locations – Michael Francis in another part of London, Monica in Gloucestershire, and Aoife in New York City – to help find their father. Gretta’s relationship with each of her children is fractured in some way. She dislikes her son’s Englishness, she loathes the space which has opened up between her and her favourite daughter Monica, and she dislikes the way in which Aoife fled to the United States and ‘Never called. Never wrote’.
Each of these characters, too, has a fractured life in some way. Michael’s marriage has hit a definite rough patch; he is a man ‘hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house’. Monica is living in a lonely farmhouse with her new husband, whose stepdaughters go out of their way to make life difficult for her: ‘Peter came with a ready-made family, with spare children, she’d hoped she might slot into their lives almost as if they were her own’. Aoife is almost living a hand to mouth existence and is struggling with the fact that, having been held back so much at school, she cannot read.
The author’s descriptions of Michael Francis’ young children particularly are imaginative and perceptive: ‘Hughie is a sprite, a light, reedy being, his too-long hair flying out behind him, diaphanous, an Ariel, a creature of the air, whereas Vita is more of a soil-dwelling animal. A badger, she reminds him [Michael Francis] of, perhaps, or a fox’. Throughout, O’Farrell’s writing style is polished, and her third person narrative voice has been deftly crafted. The short time period in which the novel takes place too adds in its own way to the story.
O’Farrell clearly knows her characters incredibly well. She feeds in lots of details about each of them as the book goes on, and she makes it clear that in Instructions for a Heatwave, nothing is quite what it seems. Secrets lie behind every closed door, and once happy hearts seem as lifeless as the scorched grass in the city. The detritus of family life has built up over time, leaving behind a trail of broken individuals, who use the horrid situation they find themselves in to try and build bridges with one another.