Book Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Rating: ★★★★★

Spoiler-Free Review

Kafka on the Shore is a magical realism book set in Japan and follows two characters: Kafka Tamura, a teenage boy doomed to fulfill an oedipal prophecy, and Satoru Nakata, an old man who lost his mental faculties as a young child. Each traverse through their respective journeys, though often unsure as to where exactly they’re headed and what they plan on doing once they get there. Their paths parallel and intertwine, and the puzzle pieces that appear throughout the book only begin to come together by the end.

A couple of months ago, I started Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami but wasn’t able to finish it. Still, I’d heard so many great things about Kafka on the Shore and I really wanted to continue to explore the genre of magical realism, so I decided to check it out.

This book, like most books, started out simultaneously mundane and obscure. Yet, as the story progressed, it only got increasingly, intriguingly absurd. The arc of the story and its build up was really well-written, and behind every seemingly meaningless encounter seemed to be a purpose. The book took me through a rollercoaster of reactions alongside the characters, who were each fleshed out thoroughly, and even side characters seemed to have some mystery and complexity that drove their actions.

I also really loved the writing style. It was just so poignant but also experimental, with some chapters taking the format of an interview. There were also many subtle shifts in perspective and personality, which I think made the book so human, so complete. At first, the writing style struck me as angsty rather than deep (especially the lines of The Boy Named Crow), but perhaps that was the intention given the protagonist of the book is, after all, 15.

Something I found interesting was how despite the magical elements embedded within the story, this book really made me slow down and appreciate its mundanity. Admittedly, I found some of the extended, seemingly unnecessary descriptions laborious to read at first, but after a while, it definitely made the book much more introspective, more still.

And perhaps what I loved most about Kafka on the Shore was the way it ended. Maybe it’s because it was my first read and didn’t catch all of the subtleties of the story, but by the end of the book, there wasn’t really a “this moment ties everything together and makes the obscurity make sense” sort of chapter. Instead, I was left with many loose ends. Yet, this is what made the book feel so organic, because it didn’t feel like anything was forced for convenience’s sake. With this, there was a lot of closure with the ending, and it left me with a lingering sense of hope.

This ending and just how abstract everything was throughout the book changed my understanding of literature, of storytelling. I guess it could be because I don’t have much experience in reading magical realism, but this book was eye opening and made me realize that so much of what makes a story good is how authentic and human it is, and the reactions it draws from its readers. This sort of freedom to experiment with words, to write in riddles as Murakami mentions in this interview, is inspiring.

This is the type of book where you kind of sit back and let the book take you where it will. All-in-all, I probably didn’t grasp the full beauty of the story because this was only my first read (like, why leeches?), and I plan on rereading it some day. In the meantime, though, I definitely recommend this book 🙂

It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: in dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.

Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

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