Giving this book a three-star rating seems unjust. When reading it, I found much I liked about the work, yet having had a few days to digest it, find myself struggling to justify just exactly what I found so appealing.
To deal first of all with the good, Kafka on the Shore is on a basic level a decent page-turner. Two related stories are interwoven, chapter for chapter, and while they don’t necessarily come together in the end, the narrative is nicely paced and suitably eventful to keep the reader engaged. There are various themes on display, from the Oedipal tragedy and the journey to adulthood, together with more complex issues dealing with time and reality, and plenty of the metaphorical and surreal elements to spice things up. If you aren’t enamoured by ‘magic realism’ this will no doubt be an instant turn-off.
As for the prose, which some other reviewers have complained about as stilted or to be blamed on the translation, I found the book to be for the most part very pleasantly written. It must be said that the translation is American, which for a British reader did jar on occasion. There were also moments when the dialogue came across as particularly unrealistic and forced, but this probably has more to do with Murakami squeezing in a lot of metaphysical/philosophical discussion. This is a novel in which 15-year-olds can discuss interpretations of Schubert, and pick up books on Napoleon’s Russian campaign on a whim. It won’t appeal to everyone, but the discussions and ideas floating around in the book make for interesting intervals in the action.
Unfortunately, having finished the novel I found my admiration began to wane. As others have pointed out, there is no ‘satisfactory’ conclusion, which on its own is no problem, rather that none of the various threads of the novel have any answers. Thinking back, I find that what I read as interesting and titillating discussions or metaphorical events simply turned into question marks hanging over the book’s closed cover. The author himself suggests readers should use the book’s riddles to find their own solutions, and that multiple readings are recommended, but for that I have neither the time nor the inclination.
To my mind, Kafka on the Shore is a perfectly interesting diversion, and one which works on some levels as an engaging story. But where it tries to become more deeply meaningful, it offers only disconnected ideas that the reader has to piece together if he is to see any of the picture. This was my first Murakami, and whilst the book hasn’t made me a fan, it also hasn’t put me off picking up another of his novels should the opportunity arise. But for the sour aftertaste, it even deserves an extra star, or the sheer joyful way in which he has written a modern day fairy tale cum parable.