Haruki Murakami's seventh novel to be translated into English is at once a moving tale of an extraordinary love and a haunting mystery, complete with Murakami's signature touches of magic realism.
Sumire, the novel's heroine, is a young, aspiring writer who considers herself to be the ultimate rebel. She chain-smokes, dresses like an unkempt little boy, is obsessed with Jack Kerouac, and seems to reject -- almost on principle -- all the mores and manifestations of normal society, including love and sex. According to the narrator, "If she did experience sex -- or something close to it -- in high school, I'm sure it would have been less out of sexual desire or love than literary curiosity." Sumire spends most of her time writing stories with which she is never satisfied and discussing the meaning of life with her best friend, a levelheaded Tokyo schoolteacher with a penchant for sleeping with the mothers of his students. To the reader, and to Sumire herself, it seems as if she is waiting, primed, for her life to truly begin.
Life does in fact begin -- and almost end -- for Sumire when she meets an elegant older woman named Miu at a cousin's wedding. Sumire, who has never known love, falls head-over-heels for this mysterious woman, and the two develop a close friendship. Miu seems determined to become a mentor to Sumire and offers her a job as her personal assistant. When Miu and her new assistant take a business trip to Europe, the story becomes increasingly dreamlike -- or, more accurately, nightmarish. In Europe, Miu finally confides in Sumire about the experience that forever changed the older woman's life, an experience that psychically broke her in half and left behind only a shell of the person she once was. In her determination to become closer to and fully understand Miu, Sumire sets out on her own world-shattering journey to the "other side," a trip that nearly leads her away from Miu and from her life in Japan forever.
The novel is told in first person, but not from Sumire's perspective. Instead it is told by Sumire's best friend, the Tokyo schoolteacher who for years has been secretly in love with her. The narrator's inability to fully understand the journey that Sumire takes during the novel imparts an added aura of mystery to her already unfathomable pilgrimage. But his love for and faith in Sumire allow the reader to believe that, unlike Miu, this young woman will find the strength to survive her ordeal and return intact. (Laura Beers)