At 36, Tsukuru Tazaki has settled into a determined rut. He has no close friends, no long-term relationships, and no pets. There is nothing tying him to anyone or anything else. His job is ostensibly what he has always been most passionate about, but the realities of the position are a lot more tedious detail than the stuff of fantasy. He isn’t satisfied, but he isn’t about to take action to fix the situation either. Until he meets Sarah, a charismatic lady who is repeatedly described as an older woman even though she is only two years his senior.
Tsukuru feels drawn to Sarah in a way he has never felt drawn to anyone (or perhaps it has just been a long time. Tsukuru can’t quite make up his mind on that fact). Tsukuru has been deeply hurt for sixteen years–a hurt that has kept him from getting close to anyone. When he opens up about this fact to Sarah and tells her his story, she is shocked that he has never sought closure and demands that he tie up all of his emotional loose ends before they consider a full-fledged relationship. So Tsukuru begins an odyssey into the past to find out the truth behind what happened and reconcile it with the man he became because of it.
Except that the deep hurt Tsukuru is describing is hard to relate to. You see, as a teenager he was part of a group of five friends. We are meant to believe that these five were inseparable, that their bond was so deep that they were more like five parts of the same person, but it’s hard to see just what made their friendship so special. On the outside, as a reader must be, I certainly couldn’t get a sense of anything life-altering except for the fact that Murakami, the writer, insists it must have been so. Anyway, one day the other four friends cast Tsukuru out with no explanation (this is not a spoiler, by the way. It is revealed in the opening chapters as the set-up to the novel). For a year, Tsukuru wanted to die. Then he picked himself up and carried on feeling like a shell of a man.
Here’s where the novel breaks down for me. For one thing, Tsukuru is somewhat confounding. He’s passive to an extreme, so the events of the plot have nothing to do with his own goals or needs. He doesn’t want truth–Sarah told him to find it, so he went on a quest. His friends told him not to contact them anymore, so until someone else (Sarah) told him otherwise, he obediently listened without questioning their decision. The entire plot hinges on his quest for answers so he can finally move on, but his own wants and needs are almost incidental. That makes it very hard to root for him.
For another thing, there are a lot of subplots or tangents that go absolutely nowhere. Tsukuru spends a great deal of time telling us about a college friend who also abandoned him with no explanation, but there is exactly zero follow-through on that storyline. At no point does Tsukuru consider finding out what happened there (if only Sarah had asked him to get closure there, too). There’s also a mystical ghost story tangent in the first hundred pages that owes a great debt to The Ring, but feel free to skip those pages if you like because they won’t tie back to anything else in the rest of the book. I’ll avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that there isn’t much closure in the main storyline as well. I suspect that the journey is supposed to be the focus in the main storyline, but combine that with the essentially meaningless subplots and it does make the whole experience feel pointless.
It’s sad to say, but I would recommend skipping this Murakami novel in favor of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. That book is a masterpiece, and Tsukuru is unfortunately, well, colorless.