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1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

It took me three attempts over four months to get past the first few pages of this book. Once I finally got into it, it didn’t leave my hand for an instant.

1Q84  is another slab of icy-cool weirdness of a flavour that only Murakami can cook up. Set in Tokyo in 1984, it’s written as two separate, alternating stories of people having their lives invaded by weirdness. Tengo is a typical Murakami character, a bookish loner and a terrific cook. He’s invited to participate in a get-rich-quick scheme: a 17-year old girl has written a fantasy novel called Air Chrysalis and Tengo’s friend in the publishing industry wants Tengo to anonymously rewrite it. Which Tengo does and they all make a pile of money, but Tengo starts to realise that the original book might be more grounded in reality than he thought.

Meanwhile, Aomame is a sports therapist and part-time assassin, who specialises in making her murders look like heart attacks. Her victims are all violent husbands and sex offenders, and she’s all geared up to take on a high-profile pedophile but for one concern: Aomame is utterly certain that she has been transported into a parallel universe. She admirably sticks to her normal routine of star jumps, sit-ups and stabbing blokes, while trying to figure out how she left 1984 and ended up in 1Q84 (the Q stands for Question mark, y’see).

There are also evil gnomes in this book.

So. Those are the details of the plot. But it’s a Murakami novel, so don’t expect any kind of resolution. Indeed, at one point Tengo finds himself reading reviews of Air Chrysalis which all say that it’s beautifully written but why oh why doesn’t the author ever explain what the hell is going on? If it was a movie, Murakami would at that point have leaned into the frame and given a big wink.

This is probably why so many people have been unsatisfied by 1Q84. It’s got one of the most compelling plots that Murakami’s done, with some Dan Brown-esque twists and turns: evil cults, deadly assassins, beautiful women, private detectives and all the rest. Even the most devout fan of obtuse Japanese metaphysics could be drawn into reading it as a pulpy sci-fi novel.

But it isn’t. It’s a weird, impressionistic fable about love, fiction and the act of creation. The space between parents and children, husbands and wives, authors and novels; somewhere in that space is the location of 1Q84. It’s not just a question of Tengo & Aomame escaping back to their own world; they must learn to engage with a world outside themselves for the first time in their lives.

And if that last paragraph has put you off reading it, then you probably shouldn’t. Seriously, it is just 900 pages of people wondering about stuff.

A lot of people seem disappointed with 1Q84 but personally I loved it. In terms of texture and characterisation, this even beats The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And while it’s probably not as mindbendingly original as that novel, it’s certainly got more new ideas than most writers manage in a lifetime.

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