So, as I’ve been pointing out far too often on my blog and Instagram lately, I’ve been ill for the past few days. I must have caught flu from somebody at work so have been achy, shivery, and pathetic since Friday. I’d hoped that I would spend the time in bed to get ahead with some reading but I’ve basically had no energy. The idea of picking up a book and trying to take it in was more than I could cope with. It meant that I was faced with another Wednesday without a review, which made me feel even more pathetic. But, thankfully, Haruki Murakami came to my rescue. In honour of his 70th birthday this year, Murakami’s short story Birthday Girl was released in its own adorable edition. The story focuses on the 20th birthday of a waitress so, I guess, it’s kind of fortuitous that today my Facebook memory was from 11 years ago: one month before my 20th birthday. I hate this long-term memories just remind me of how horribly pretentious I was. Highlighted by the fact that my status update was an Oscar Wilde quote. I mean, geez. So, god knows what would have happened if this story had happened to 20-year-old Laura. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Birthday Girl is the story of a waitress and how she spent her twentieth birthday. The young woman ends up having to cover a shit at the Italian restaurant where she works. It’s meant to be a normal night but, when her manager ends up going to the hospital, she finds her whole night going in a weird direction. The owner of the restaurant is a mysterious figure who gets a meal delivered to his upper-floor apartment every night. Nobody but the manager has ever had contact with him until the waitress is forced to take his place. It is a meeting that will change the whole tone of her birthday and stay with her for the rest of her life.
Those who like their stories to be wrapped up as neatly as a birthday present will be disappointed. There is no beautiful paper or tight bow here. It is very much open-ended and left to the reader’s imagination. We learn next to nothing about the woman at the heart of the story or much about her life. It’s the kind of thing I love and something we have come to expect from Murakami. We know, he loves the short story form to capture a single moment between two people and this is no different. The main narrative is bookended by a conversation the waitress is having with an unnamed narrator. We don’t know who this other person is and what their relationship is Does it matter? No. All that matters is that, for whatever reason, the two are sharing a piece of personal history.
It has everything that we have come to expect from his magical realism. Everything is described in such beautiful detail but there are aspects everywhere that suggest something isn’t quite right. The setting is meant to be slightly disconcerting so you are constantly questioning if the story is real or not. All of the little details are really what make the story. We learn more about the bit players, like the floor manager who is really proud of being able to tie a bow tie without using a mirror, than we do about the main two. And it’s perfect. We put ourselves into the waitress’ shoes and, inevitably, ask ourselves what we would do in that situation.
If I had to compare it to something (and nobody has actually asked me to), this short story has the feel of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to it. A strange figure tells an unnamed narrator a tale from their past. It is a magical and unbelievable tale that leaves the other party captivated whilst raising so many questions. It’s final message of “people can never be anything but themselves” is a fantastic message that is, obviously, cause for self-reflection. For only 40-odd pages, Birthday Girl is full on great details and is rife for analysis. It is wholly Murakami and it is wholly entertaining. Start reading it now and then get back to me in 10 minutes with your own suggestions for the big mystery.