I'm reading through three lists of best horror with two friends (DeAnna Knippling and M.B. Partlow), posting reviews as we go. (For more information, including a list of the books, see this post.) To see the books I've reviewed so far, you can view the list at the end of this post where I rank them.
This week I'm reviewing 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami.
This book was written by a Japanese author then translated into English, which always makes me wonder what's lost between the two. It took me longer than usual to read. It turns out it's nearly 1200 pages, so I believe that explains it.
Once again, this is really not horror. As for what it is, I'm having trouble categorizing it, so I looked at Amazon, and they have it under SF/F, dystopian, and magical realism. And all of those are right. But since it was on a list of best horror, here's the review.
Most of the book is told from two points of view: Aomame and Tengo. It's twenty years after they knew each other as ten-year olds. Both lived unhappy lives, but only one was outcast at school. She came from a family of Witnesses, an extreme religious organization with strict requirements her parents refused to loosen for her to save her humiliation at school. His father was an NHK subscription fee collector, who forced him to walk all weekend collecting fees with him, pounding on people's doors. One day in school Aomame slipped her tiny hand into Tengo's, forever skewing their futures and linking them together. That was the last they saw each other. Yet they lived lonely existences, both often thinking of the other.
Fast forward to 1984. Only something's wrong with this time, so Aomame, who senses it first, renames this strange new world with two moons to 1Q84 to keep it clear in her mind. She knows something is off, but can't figure out why or what. In the meantime, she is given a final mission that sets her off against the dangerous Sakigake cult, forcing her to go into hiding.
In Tengo's world, he is given a project to rewrite a young girl's story. It becomes an instant best seller, though he gets no credit; he is simply the ghost writer. The more time he spends with the young girl who wrote the original story, the more he is drawn into a strange world where the content of the story is possibly more fact than fiction.
This story was intriguing. It actually took quite a chunk of the book to get to where the slight skew became slightly bigger, and more a part of the story. Murakami dives deep into his characters, often giving more information than I felt was needed. There was frequent repetition of things, and it led to me skimming those portions. If a story was told or read within the book, it was either summarized or written out, which I found frustrating at times. I feel like it could have been significantly shorter, while still being a solid story. Then again, this is the first book I've read by a Japanese author, and this may be the usual form their stories take. A slower story-telling style that is more elaborate and meant to leave you with many stories, rather than just one.
It was fun seeing the similarities and differences between the culture I know and the Japanese culture. Just as with other books by non-western authors, I found that there were more similarities than differences. Murakami is obviously well read, quoting authors from all over the world, including Shakespeare. The characters ate what I would expect in Japan, but then one ordered peach pie and coffee at a restaurant, which threw me for a second.
The translator did a good job of incorporating meanings of words into the story. It was a smooth read. There was only one thing that was odd, and it was when one of the characters stays at a "Japenese-style inn." They're in Japan. I'm wondering if this actually just meant it was a traditional style?
The elements that set this world apart from the "real" one were small, yet significant. Like the two moons or a billboard facing a different way. There was an immaculate conception via conduit, little people that shaped some of the other elements, and a cult that was actually experiencing the magic claimed. Underneath it all was the thread of a long-awaited romance, an inevitable combining of two souls. Yet, despite it being acknowledged as this inevitable draw, there is no telling until the end whether it will happen or not.
Murakami wove beautiful details throughout. His characters were realistic and individual. They each stood on their own. The characters, both male and female, were intelligent, savvy, determined. They were not uniformly beautiful. They had flaws and self doubt. They didn't always know everything. They were human. And no one in this book was innately evil. Each person was doing what they had to do for themselves, even when they knew it would lead to trouble down the line. I knew who I wanted to win, yet I felt bad for the others, because I understood why they did what they had to do.
It was a nuanced and gorgeous book that compelled me to keep reading. The fantasy elements never got as strong as I expected them to, so read for the characters and the outcome, not for any extreme fantasy elements. And certainly don't read it for horror. I suspect what got it categorized in that way by whichever list I took this from was the idea that someone could be pulled into what was basically another dimension or parallel universe, simply by virtue of a minor decision, thus changing their lives forever.
All in all, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it. Those of you who read fantasy, dystopian, or magical realism might like it, as well. Again, it's not horror, so don't let that hold you back.
My new rankings:
1. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
2. The Bottoms (Joe R. Lansdale)
3. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
4. A Choir of Ill Children (Tom Piccirilli)
5. The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2010 (Paula Guran)
6. The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
7. Needful Things (Stephen King)
8. 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)
9. Those Who Hunt the Night (Barbara Hambly)
12. Dawn (Xenogenesis, Book 1) (Octavia E. Butler)
13. The Stranger (Albert Camus)
14. Dead in the Water (Nancy Holder)
15. The Witches (Roald Dahl)
16. Psycho (Robert Bloch)
17. The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)
18. The Wolf's Hour (Robert McCammon)
19. Berserk (Tim Lebbon)
20. Prime Evil (Douglas E. Winter)
21. Best New Horror, Volume 1 (edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell)
22. Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews)
23. The Tomb (F. Paul Wilson)
24. Shadowland (Peter Straub)
25. Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)
26. The Imago Sequence (Laird Barron)
27. My Soul to Keep (Tananarive Due)
28. Penpal (Dathan Auerbach)
29. World War Z (Max Brooks)
30. From the Dust Returned (Ray Bradbury)
31. The Red Tree (Caitlin R. Kiernan)
32. In Silent Graves (Gary A. Braunbeck)
33. The Cipher (Kathe Koja)
34. Drawing Blood (Poppy Z. Brite)
35. The Doll Who Ate His Mother (Ramsey Campbell)
36. Hotel Transylvania (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro)
37. Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs)
I haven't decided what I'm reading next in this list.
Have you read 1Q84? Enjoy dystopians or magical realism? Have you read a book by a Japanese author? Did you find it was slower paced and more elaborate than you're accustomed to?
May you find your Muse.