Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami

Voyager didn’t arrive for ages! I had to order a replacement copy. Kafka on the Shore, which I bought while we were evacuated after the big typhoon in October, had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I already read Murakami’s drama novel Norwegian Wood, and upon reading a review for it, a reader said that Kafka was much better, so I decided to check it out.

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Kafka on the Shore follows the fortunes of two remarkable characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home at fifteen, under the shadow of his father’s dark prophesy. The aging Nakata, tracker of lost cats, who never recovered from a bizarre childhood affliction, finds his pleasantly simplified life suddenly turned upside down. Their parallel odysseys are enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerising dramas. Cats converse with people; fish tumble from the sky; a ghostlike pimp deploys a Hegel-spouting girl of the night; a forest harbours soldiers apparently un-aged since WWII. There is a savage killing, but the identity of both victim and killer is a riddle. Murakami’s novel is at once a classic quest, but it is also a bold exploration of mythic and contemporary taboos, of patricide, of mother-love, of sister-love. Above all it is an entertainment of a very high order.

Murakami’s prose is easy to follow and fluent enough where it doesn’t fall flat. I read the English version, and I’m sure the translator followed the original writing as close as possible.

That being said, there were some unusual things happening with tenses. The story follows two characters, a fifteen-year-old boy running away from home called Kafka Tamura (his first name being a new identity for himself, though we never learn his real name) and Nakata, a sixty-something old man who, after an accident when he was young, was left “stupid,” unable to read or write, but with the strange ability to communicate with cats.

Nakata’s chapters are in third person past tense whereas Kafka’s are written in first person present tense. Though I’ve never seen this before and thought it was a bit weird, it made it very easy to tell whose chapter I was on. Some other books I’ve read that flit between characters’ points of view don’t do a good job of distinguishing the voices. It was easy to get used to. However, a few times in the book the tense changed mid-paragraph, such as going into second person when Crow was speaking. This was jarring and unnecessary.

The story itself was pretty cool and original. Without giving too much away, there was Nakata and his strange ability to talk to cats and know things he shouldn’t, a vile villain, and odd, dreamlike happenings. Everything had a metaphor, I suppose. Although Nakata and Kafka never actually meet, their fates are intertwined, and many things one character does are essential for another character’s story.

I wasn’t completely blown away by Kafka on the Shore, however. I found myself hoping that all the bizarre events in the story would have a logical explanation at the end, a twist that would explain everything. A little pedantic, maybe, but I wanted to know why. Why can Nakata communicate with cats? Who are the villain and the oddly helpful individual who crops up now and then? Are they the same person? What is the strange phenomenon that caused Nakata’s accident? Though some things were explained, it was only a small portion. Though it’s what I expected, I was still left disappointed.

It’s probably personal taste, but I prefer stories that explain the hows and whys. Just throwing leeches falling from the sky and talking cats feels cheap and just doing it to be edgy and different. I did some digging and found that Murakami said that “he wants people to find meanings by themselves,” which to me could mean that they have no meaning, and they were just there for shock value or to be unique.

That being said, I did quite enjoy this book. The characters were solid, the prose interesting. I especially liked the descriptions of the library. Murakami is famous for having a lot of sex in his books, and this one is no different, but they were handled tastefully and were written in a surreal, dreamlike way that I liked. Overall, Kafka on the Shore gets three stars out of five.

3stars

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Spoiler-Free Book Review: “The Light at the Bottom of the World” by London Shah

I pre-ordered this months ago because the premise really hooked me. Nearly a hundred years in the future, London and the rest of the world are underwater, a new civilization living at the bottom of the sea. The cover was absolutely gorgeous too, so I decided to give this debut novel a shot while waiting for Voyager to arrive.

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“In the last days of the twenty-first century, sea creatures swim through the ruins of London. Trapped in the abyss, humankind wavers between fear and hope–fear of what lurks in the depths around them, and hope that they might one day find a way back to the surface.
 
When sixteen-year-old submersible racer Leyla McQueen is chosen to participate in the prestigious annual marathon, she sees an opportunity to save her father, who has been arrested on false charges. The Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. 

But the race takes an unexpected turn, forcing Leyla to make an impossible choice.

Now she must brave unfathomable waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a guarded, hotheaded companion she never asked for in the first place. If Leyla fails to discover the truths at the heart of her world, or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture–or worse. And her father will be lost to her forever.”

There was a lot I liked about this book. The thing that struck me most was that it seemed to be aimed at teenagers, perhaps around 13-16 years old, yet it had a lot of swearing in it, so I’m not sure who the target audience is. YA, perhaps? There were a lot of plot twists I didn’t see coming, which is important for a good story.

Things I Liked

  • The world-building was fantastic. Some of the scenes describing the vibrant underwater world, filled with dangers, sea creatures, and ruins of old buildings painted some vivid pictures in my mind.
  • The main character, Leyla McQueen. Some people have said Leyla is naive or makes stupid decisions, but… she’s sixteen. I actually liked her a lot. She actually feels like a sixteen-year-old; she’s a little stubborn, makes silly mistakes sometimes (but apologizes and tries to redeem herself afterward), and loves hot drinks and taking care of her puppy, Jojo.
  • The theme of family and how important it is to her.
  • The themes of a government you can’t trust. This was great and full of unexpected plot twists and revelations that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Things I Didn’t Like:

  • The prose, I felt, was the weakest thing about The Light at the Bottom of the World. Many cliches and boring language were used, a lot of the scenes went at lightning pace and didn’t allow for any real tension to build, and in one chapter Leyla’s “cheeks flooded with heat” about four times within a couple of pages. A rewrite with more detail in the action scenes would do this novel a world of good.
  • The way she and the love interest, Ari, interacted. He’s the typical brooding, serious, but very handsome and strong type, and Leyla flits between disliking him and swooning over how perfect his jawline is. I found myself skipping sentences where she was talking about his golden eyes or the way his jaw twitched. He wasn’t much of a character, and it was obvious they’d become a couple from their very first meeting.
  • The first person present tense. Why is the present tense so darn popular lately?

The Light at the Bottom of the World had loads of cool nerdy references and parts that were unapologetically British; Leyla is a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, talks about how much she loves tea. Hermione Granger and Dr Who are also mentioned. King George is also briefly said to be the last king, which was a nice touch.

Quotes

Debut novels rarely have quotes worth noting down, but there were some great ones in this one. Here are some of my favourites.

“You people… always content with your own lives no matter what’s going on with somebody else – as long as you’re fine. Always believing what you’re told.”

A real Oscar Wilde quote: “Ah, one can never be too overdressed or overeducated.”

“Maybe if we weren’t bombarded with the endless promotion of despair, we might think and feel differently about our lives.”

I also found it interesting how depression was mentioned and dealt with in this story, and I think many readers would agree that it applies to the real world, too. I actually felt the best writing was in the last few pages when Leyla is reflecting on what’s happened and we see how she’s grown.

All in all, I enjoyed this story. I feel it would appeal more to teenagers because of the writing style, and I won’t be forgetting the unique world in a hurry. I think I’ll probably buy the sequel when it comes out. I feel the weak prose let the book down the most and hope that Shah will polish her craft before writing the next one.

Three and a half stars for The Light at the Bottom of the World!

3.5stars

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