Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: A review

Oh, my goodness! How do I even start? With a brief description, perhaps?

We have a 15-year-old boy who calls himself Kafka Tamura, although that isn't his real name. He has run away from the home that he shares with his father. His mother had also run away eleven years before, taking his older sister, but not Kafka, with her. Kafka is fleeing his father, a violent and malevolent sculptor. He had freaked Kafka out by giving him a prophecy, based on the ancient story of Oedipus. He tells Kafka that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother and his sister, both of whom he barely remembers. Kafka is one of the narrators of the story.

The other main narrative line is that of Satoru Nakata, a 60-year-old, mentally impaired man. When he was nine years old, Nakata was part of a group of schoolchildren who, while on a trip picking mushrooms in the woods, mysteriously lost consciousness. All of the children regained consciousness with no ill effects except for Nakata. His coma lasted for weeks and when he finally woke, he had lost his ability to read and write and had lost his memories. He never recovered. He receives a disability subsidy from the government and he supplements that income with fees that his neighbors pay him to find their lost cats, because, along with all the things he lost because of his coma, he gained the ability to talk to cats. 

The stories of these two characters develop along parallel routes until, at the end, they seem to converge, or at least overlap.

Reading Kafka on the Shore took me back to my days of watching Twin Peaks on television. Or even further back to my days of reading Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan. What I'm saying, this is some weird stuff. Magical realism doesn't really begin to cover it.

We have the 15-year-old runaway having hot, hot sex with a 50-year-old librarian who may or may not be his long lost mother. Likewise, he has metaphorical sex with a 21-year-old woman who just might be his sister. Or not. And, oh yes, his father is murdered, although it couldn't have been by Kafka because he has an ironclad alibi. So, has all his father's prophecy come true?

And about that murder. It takes place after a gruesome scene of the victim torturing and killing cats, and when Nakata (for he is the one who does the deed) strikes the blow, eliminating that particular character, one feels a compulsion to stand up and cheer.

Of course, the cat torturer isn't completely eliminated. He turns up later in a magical town in a magical forest, a kind of purgatory for dead souls. Other people whom we thought we'd seen the last of turn up here, too. And Kafka gets to visit there, but then returns to the real world.

A lot of things happen in this book, but the overwhelming impression one is left with is not the events of the novel but the mood that is created. It's a mood of...confusion. The meaning of what is happening is always just slipping away or hidden around the next corner. The reader is left to try to piece together the puzzle that the writer has presented. It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to refer to.

And yet, having said all that, Murakami's prose is deceptively simple. (Of course, I read the book in English translation, so the possibility exists that that is partly the translator's art.) He writes very straightforward sentences with, seemingly, no artifice. He's a bit like a magician who explains his trick before performing it, but it still seems magical, almost supernatural. I found the writing rather mesmerizing and the book to be a page-turner, even though, in the end, I was still confused. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars  


  1. Oh my goodness. Do you take notes as you read? Or do you have a prodigious memory? I remember all the things you wrote about in your review, but only because you wrote about them. I loved this book. I just surrendered to it.

    1. Murakami is a masterful writer. It's easy to see why so many critics gush over his work. While I loved the main characters in this book - especially Nakata - some of the supernatural aspects of the story were just a bridge too far for me. (If you remember the story, you may get the pun about the bridge!)

  2. So you didn't love it? Hmmm...I put this book on my wishlist after I read Judy's review. I haven't bought it yet, so perhaps it can wait.

    1. I would encourage you to keep it on your list and read it. You may love it. I loved perhaps two-thirds of it and I did love the main characters, but it sort of lost me in the last third with the magical forest, the relationship between Kafka and his (maybe) mother, etc. If the book had only been Nakata's story, I think I would have given it five stars.

  3. I am too confused in real life to manage a book like this. Maybe after I retire....

    1. Retirement didn't help me, except that it did at least give me time to read it. It's a long book. If I were still working full time I would never have attempted it.


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