The first time you read Haruki Murakami, it can be a disorienting experience. One minute, a character is just sitting there, drinking tea or doing some other mundane activity that routinely happens in the real world. The next minute, that same character is vaulted onto another plane: a shimmering, psychic underworld in which daylight fades into dreamscape and nothing is as it seems. At first, there is a voice in the reader’s head crying out, “Wait, what? No. Is this real? Is the main character a lunatic? Am I a lunatic?!” So, in order to really enjoy Haruki Murakami’s work, you have to give that voice of reason a pat on its head and tell it to go lie down for awhile, as you won’t be needing it until you’ve closed the book. If you can go with the flow and fasten your seatbelt, you’ll be in for a mind-opening journey. Fair warning, though: Murakami is addictive. If you’ve already fallen down the well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and taken a ride on the ferris wheel in Sputnik Sweetheart, you can get your mysticism fix from the otherworldly reads below.
The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
The Metamorphosis was the literary world’s first true foray into magical realism. This short story, written in 1912, chronicles the curious situation of Gregor Samsa. Having gone to bed the previous evening as a human man, Samsa is, shall we say, a bit flummoxed to wake up the next morning as a real live giant cockroach. What follows is a critique of human beings’ fear and mistrust of both change and difference. Parallels have been drawn between Kafka and Murakami, and for good reason (Murakami gives a wink to his fellow author with 2002’s Kafka on the Shore), and reading Kafka gives us a new historical context for the stylistic devices Murakami favors. If you were forced to read this short story in high school, don’t let that turn you off! Give it another try on your own terms.
The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
A distinctly American novel, The Red Garden is a collection of short stories about the Berkshire town of Blackwell, Massachusetts. At the center of the tales is a garden with red soil, in which only red things can grow. As the stories progress and layer over one another, we get an intimate introduction to Blackwell and all its hidden charms and sinister corners. Hoffman is a master storyteller, and she shares with Murakami a kind of easy, graceful craftsmanship. Like Murakami’s, her style is all the more profound for its restraint.
The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
Some books change the world forever, and The Satanic Verses is one of them. Horned demon men falling from the sky, a battle between good and evil, and a heavy dose of playful irreverence are just some of the features of this monumental work. After its publication, author Salman Rushdie was forced to live in fear of attack from those who found his work blasphemous. Like Murakami, he defies the status quo in his writing by playing with the laws of reality and thumbing his nose at cultural convention.
Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende
Eva Luna is many stories in one, beginning with that of Eva’s mother, Consuelo. We’re introduced to her hard life as an orphaned child in rural South America. Later, Eva herself is orphaned, and learns to survive by her wits and her mystical gift of storytelling. Allende’s work is reminiscent of Murakami’s in that it is beautiful, but also tinged with sadness. There is a forlorn and lonely place in the heart of each character into which the reader is helplessly drawn. In all of its gorgeous melancholia, the world created by Allende shares another striking detail with Murakami’d: it’s hard to lose hope in a place where anything can happen.
Imajica, by Clive Barker
Radical is probably the best word to describe Barker’s Imajica. In the novel, all of creation exists in five worlds. For an eternity, the fifth world of Earth has been separated from the other four dimensions for reasons unknown. The novel centers around the quest to reunite the severed Earth from the other four worlds at great peril to all of humanity. This novel is so vast in scope, it’s impossible to classify: it’s part horror, part fantasy, part erotica, and part social commentary. In a style familiar to readers of Murakami, Barker flows effortlessly between cold, hard reality and mirage-like magic. This is a long read, but worth it for those who want to test the bounds of their imagination.
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
There’s already something magical about London, but the London we know is nothing compared to the dual metropolis of Gaiman’s creation. In Neverwhere we learn there is a London Above and a London Below, the latter being the home of the poor souls who “fell through the cracks in the world.” Murakami lovers will recognize the theme of turning a city over to visit its secret and spellbound underbelly. Gaiman is a fantasy writer through and through, but his genius shines as much for the realism of his characters as for his whimsicality.
Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
Speaking of the wonder of the British Isles, we can’t really have a serious conversation about novels that celebrate magic in that region without talking about Outlander. Just as Murakami often does, Gabaldon nonchalantly plucks her main character from one reality into another. Claire is a nurse traveling to Scotland on a long-awaited honeymoon with her husband just after the Second World War. Everything is copacetic until the newlyweds decide to tour some ancient ruins, at which point Claire is thrown 200 years back into Scotland’s past. Recently turned into a TV series, this time-traveling adventure is an exhilarating romp through one of history’s most entrancing locales.
What books do you Murakami-heads recommend? Here’s our list.