If somewhere there exists a checklist of my favorite qualities in a novel, Kafka on the Shore would cover most of it. Magical realism? Coming of age? Foreign culture? Vivid food descriptions? TALKING CATS? Yes to all of the above.
The novel alternates between following two characters whose stories differ so much that their convergence seems unfeasible until they’re nearly top of each other. For over half of the book, the events surrounding teen runaway Kafka (a pseudonym) are plausible. However, the elderly and somewhat cognitively impaired Nakata’s world is fantastical. So much so that took me a while to determine if Nakata was a reliable narrator. As the characters near each other both physically and through the unveiling of their backstories, the “magic” from Nakata’s world permeates Kafka’s in a thrilling way. Murakami’s writing is at once vivid and concise, which creates an authoritative tone that bolsters your suspension of disbelief.
My only criticism is that there’s a lack of well developed female characters. This could be a conscious decision to add to Kafka’s sense of isolation, but it feels like every woman in the book is either literally or figuratively a ghost. It goes so far as to imply that the only way to possess depth of character while being a woman is to become a man. Each woman is either a caretaker or object of desire for Kafka, usually both. There’s even a pointed scene in which two overbearing feminists are administered a fairly decent burn, which doesn’t seem to serve a purpose in the story.
Would I read more by the author?: Absolutely! I will scoop up another book by him as soon as I spot it at one of my used book spots. I’m curious to see how he handles female characters in other books, and I hope very much that he continues to employ magical realism. (And cats.)