Book Review of South of the Border, West of the Sun

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The narrator of Murakami’s novel is a moderately successful jazz bar owner named Hajime. The start of the novel tells of Hajime’s progression from a child into this middle-aged man, and of the youngster’s early ‘perfect’ friendship with a girl named Shimamoto. However, when Hajime moves away he loses touch with the young girl and finds himself unable to replicate the friendship with anyone else.

South of the Border, West of the Sun differs from the majority of Murakami’s work due to its seeming rejection of more fantastical elements. However, the story remains mysterious, as Shimamoto reappears filled with secrets and refusing to explain her actions. At the time of the couple’s reunion Hajime is 36, married with 2 kids and well-regarded by others. Despite this, he is filled with an unexplainable melancholy as he searches for meaning in his life, meaning he is convinced that Shimamoto could provide.

Shimamoto’s entrance at his club for the first time adds the sense of surrealism that seems to pervade all of Murakami’s works. The conversation between the two seems more similar to a dream sequence than an actual event, and after Shimamoto’s departure Hajime is left searching for evidence that it really happened. This combined with Shimamoto’s unexplained absences for months at a time adds a bizarre quality to their relationship. This could perhaps be seen as reflecting how Hajime is searching for something insubstantial to create meaning in his life.

Hajime seems to struggle to respect women since losing Shimamoto at such a young age, possibly due to any subsequent female’s inability to measure up to her. As such, Hajime has a string of sexual affairs, both before and after his marriage, and appears to hold little regret about them. His first true girlfriend, Izumi, is the worst of these as Hajime crushes her through his actions, the full consequences of which are only seen later in the novel. Hajime’s attitude to women does make him harder to sympathise with, as South of the Border, West of the Sun presents a protagonist who can be unlikeable.

Whilst the clichéd plot of a middle-aged crisis/love triangle may seem trite and stale by Murakami’s standards, South of the Border, West of the Sun adds a new dimension to the tale. The questions surrounding Shimamoto suggest that there is more at stake than simply Hajime’s marriage, indeed he finds himself in great danger from various sources. However, the reader does at times start to get annoyed at Murakami for what can be seen as a lack of originality, a crime he has seldom been accused of before. The story of a relatively successful married man looking for excitement has been done thousands of times before, and even though South of the Border, West of the Sun does add a series of unique twists on the story, it still seems to lack the power of Murakami’s other works. Despite how beautifully written the novel is, demonstrating once more Murakami’s ability to make poetry out of the most mundane situations, South of the Border, West of the Sun lacks the substance to accompany it.

write by Robyn Todd


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