In recent months my most successful Instagram posts have been either shots of my (admittedly) enviable collection of vintage Penguin books and my, almost complete, series of Vintage Books Murakami novels. There is something about both Penguins and Murakami that gets the Bookstagram world all a flustered. Which is good because I’m a lover of both obviously. I never have a definitive answer for the question “who is your favourite author?” but I guess Murkami would always come close to the top. There’s something about his weird and wonderful worlds that just capture my attention. Whenever I showcase my Murakami editions on my feed, the question I am asked most frequently is “which would you recommend to read first?” As a result, it is a question that I have thought about a lot more than I ever really anticipated. The act of picking your first book by an established author is a weird one, isn’t it? I mean you would instinctively want to go with the most critically acclaimed or most popular novel. However, especially with an author like Murakami, that isn’t always advisable. It is also a question that is deeply personal to the person you ask. I could very easily tell you to read one novel whilst someone else would suggest an entirely different starting point. However, following on from last week’s vow to post something potentially useful, I’ve decided to set forth a few ideas of how to get into the works of Haruki Murakami. Even though, I should point out, I’m no expert and cannot claim to have read everything he’s ever written.
So, first and foremost, I would definitely suggest that the following novels, that I will henceforth refer to as ‘the Big Three’, are ones that it is best not to jump straight into. Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 are all great books in their own way, that cannot be denied, but they have the potential to be quite intense for a new reader. Maybe Kafka on the Shore would work if you went in with a thoroughly open mind but you might risk missing something. I’d definitely leave The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for later as it deserves your attention and it’s always best to slide into his way of doing things rather than jump head first. As for 1Q84, well I’ve still yet to conquer that particularly beast myself so can hardly recommend anyone start there. So, what is the best Murakami book to start with?
- Norwegian Wood/ Sputnik Sweetheart
I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Norwegian Wood because it was my first Murakami. It was also the novel that propelled him to fame in Japan. It looks back at the history of the narrator, Toru Watanabe as he recalls his youth in the late 60s. It is a wonderful and realistic portrayal of young people and young love. However, it isn’t a very Murakami novel. It differs greatly from the fantasy style that you will see in the majority of his work. It’s a great place to start but it’s not necessarily a great introduction into his writing as a whole. Which is why I’ve also suggested Sputnik Sweetheart. It’s not necessarily one of his most loved books but it is an interesting read. Like so many of his novels, it revolves around unrequited love and fitting in to an emotionally stunted society. However, unlike Norwegian Wood, it offers up some hints of alternate worlds and fantastical elements. It will ease any newbie into the offbeat style of his other works.
- Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
This is another personal favourite of mine. The narrative splits itself between two very different worlds: a kind of cyberpunk, science-fiction version of Tokyo and a fantasy-type realm featuring a town that is cut off from everything else thanks to an impenetrable wall. The narrator flits between the two worlds as he attempts to work out what is real and what is fake. I’d definitely suggest this for an early Murakami novel. It’s got his wonderfully weird style to it and is perfectly readable. It was heavily influenced by Western culture so everything will seem vaguely familiar but with a distinctive Murakami twist.
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
I’m never sure if I should ever include this on the list because it is one of his more recent works. This was first published in Japan in 2013 and a year later it was published for English speaking countries. Again, it is not the most fantastical of his works but it does what Murakami does best: explore his characters. It is the story of a man who decides to investigate what went wrong with his life 16 years earlier. We follow Tsukuru as he meets up with old friends and tries to understand why his relationships all dissolved without warning. This a pretty easy and enjoyable read that lets you into his writing style without requiring too much from you.
Now, I’m going to be totally upfront with you here, this is one of the Murakami novels that I haven’t read yet but it is one that I am desperate to read. It is the final book in his ‘Trilogy of the Rat’ which also includes Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. It’s definitely not necessary to read those books first and, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t bother anyway. HtWS and Pinball, 1973 were Murakami’s first novels but, because of his wishes, they were not published outside of Japan until a few years ago. They are not at all the style of books that the author became known for and, from the look of it, he remains keen to forget about them. They aren’t bad for a first novel but they won’t really tell you much about him as a writer. However, A Wild Sheep Chase is one of his more popular novels. It is part detective novel and past magical realism but wholly Murakami. It has a great deal to say about Japanese culture and the aftermath of World War 2 on the country but with plenty of references to Western pop culture.
Of course, there is nothing to say that to get into Murkami you have to begin with one of his novels. He may be primarily known for his great works of fiction but he has plenty to offer in the world of short stories. I’ve still not purchased his latest collection, Men Without Women, but it was one my list of ‘Most Anticipated Novels of 2017’ for obvious reasons. He has also released Blind Willow. Sleeping Woman, after the quake, and The Elephant Vanishes. There are some great stories on offer in all three of those collections and plenty to get you acquainted with his style. You’ll be able to slowly build up your tolerance before jumping into a full novel.
So, there we have it. A few suggestions for where to start if you want to become the newest member of the Murakami fan club. Obviously, if anyone has any alternative (by that I mean better) suggestions then I wholeheartedly welcome them. As I’ve mentioned, I’m no expert. I’m just a girl, sitting in front of a computer, and wondering what to blog about.