Capsule Reviews: Murakami, Burton, and More

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

9780385352109_custom-0f3fbbdbb53bd816cb906ed2438061ba089645f8-s99-c85In literary locales from Tokyo to London, Murakami’s latest novel was heralded with the hype of a summer blockbuster. In Japan alone, a million copies were sold within five weeks of the book’s publication in 2013—and following its English language release last month, Tsukuru topped both the Nielsen and New York Times bestseller lists. Massive sales aside, Murakami’s latest work could hardly have less in common with the prototypical summer bestseller. Tsukuru Tazaki is devoid of pulse-pounding thrills or even the frenetic surrealism pioneered in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In their place, the author has penned a tale of existential quandaries, fathomless melancholy, and tremendous compassion for the spiritual turmoil of its protagonist.

Tsukuru Tazaki, thirty-six-year-old train station engineer, is having a rough decade-and-a-half. Since experiencing a traumatic loss at age twenty, he’s lived on the verge of suicide—“clinging to this world like the discarded shell of an insect stuck to a branch, about to be blown off forever by a gust of wind.” The loss in question, which came suddenly and without explanation, took the form of complete ostracism from his four dearest friends—Ao, Aka, Shiro, and Kuro. In high school, the five had been as close to each other as fingers on a hand (an image portrayed on the book’s cover, as well as in its prose). In Japanese, each of the friends’ names corresponds to a color: blue, red, white, and black—unlike Tsukuru, who is “colorless” by comparison.

In stark (and perhaps intentional) contrast to some of Murakami’s past works, the narrative is quite straightforward: Tsukuru goes about his life as a single man. He swims with a friend, goes to work, grapples with depression, and reminisces. As simple as this narrative may be, it’s anything but shallow: profound psychological insights fill almost every page, and Murakami has much much to say on the bittersweet persistence of memory. Ultimately, Tsukuru finds no easy answers for his spiritual ills: the past is a burden not easily shed, and he yearns still for the blissful camaraderie of his youth. This unresolved pain lies at the heart of Murakami’s work. Tsukuru is granted no clean resolutions—but over the course of the novel, he does find the maturity and perseverance to live without them.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

UnknownAs its title might suggest, The Miniaturist is a novel with a sharp eye for small details. This is most evident in its well-developed sense of place: the story is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, and the physical environs of the novel are rendered with fantastic depth and authenticity. In addition, Burton’s extensive research allows her to craft a backdrop of compelling societal context. Greed, corruption, and zealotry dominate city life, putting her protagonist—Nella, a free-spirited eighteen-year-old recently wedded to a merchant in Amsterdam—at odds with the society around her. As Burton writes of the city’s Puritan climate: “Founded on risk, Amsterdam now craves certainty, a neat passage through life, guarding the comfort of its money with dull obedience.” Incisive, world-building passages such as this educate the reader on almost every facet of Dutch society, and are key to the book’s absorbing nature.

Atop this excellent historical foundation, Burton has constructed a narrative of impressive depth, intrigue, and originality. As a result of Amsterdam’s suffocating piety, citizens are forbidden to own any kind of idol that might represent the human body—which troubles young Nella, who was given a large dollhouse as a wedding present. In an act of defiance, Nella acquires a series of figurines from the titular miniaturist, which sets in motion a series of mysteries and revelations regarding her new husband and his family. The narrative moves with the enthralling energy of a whodunit, as Nella pieces together the truth of her strange new life. For this captivating narrative, as well as its distinct and immersive setting, The Miniaturist is an ambitious and successful debut.

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2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

18815488In her relentlessly entertaining debut novel, Marie-Helene Bertino intertwines character arcs with the skill and alacrity of a classic sitcom. No laugh track is needed, however, to appreciate the wit and eccentricity of her protagonists. Throughout the book, which covers a twenty-four-hour period leading up to a climactic intersection of plot lines, Bertino cycles between perspectives, giving each of the three main characters their spotlight in turn. And while this pattern is decidedly reminiscent of, say, a Seinfeld episode, the author is by no means limited to the lighthearted whimsy that comparison might suggest. Bertino’s prose is daring and precise, equally capable of both humor and gravitas. As she writes on the bonds of family, one of the novel’s major themes: “We carry our ancestors in our names and sometimes we carry our ancestors through the sliding doors of emergency rooms and either way they are heavy, either way we can’t escape.”

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is its impeccable pacing: the story takes place over the course of one day, and with each transition between characters Bertino marks the passage of time. This allows her to craft tight, totally controlled vignettes, sometimes only a line or two long. No scene overstays its welcome, and the constant back-and-forth between characters and locales gives the narrative an improvisational, jazz-like rhythm. Whether this style of organization is intentionally mimetic or mere coincidence, one can only guess—but in either case, jazz music is an essential part of Bertino’s creation. One of the three main characters, a foul-mouthed and deeply charming nine-year-old, is a talented jazz singer—and another, Jack Lorca, is the owner of the titular jazz club in which the narrative reaches its peak. One might think, given that the book’s very title telegraphs this peak, that the climactic meeting at The Cat’s Pajamas would feel predestined. The fact that it does not evinces Bertino’s ability to keep the reader guessing, entertained, and turning pages. She crafts her narrative as as expert jazz band might craft a series of solos: each player emerging and receding in turn, each sequence of notes unpredictable and inventive.

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When the World Was Young by Elizabeth Gaffney

51imWWhmSnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Few periods of American history are more frequently idealized than the decade after World War II. 1945-55, which covered the homecoming of the Greatest Generation and the baby boom that followed, is often characterized as an time of unqualified moral and economic prosperity. It is this era, with all its social transformations and wide-eyed patriotism, that Gaffney takes on in her rich and affecting new novel. The author succeeds in crafting an immersive, nuanced portrait of post-war American life—Gaffney is not fooled by the clichés, jingoism, and suffocating nostalgia that can cloud one’s perception of the era. She shows the hope, yes—but also the racial strife, the confusion caused by a rapidly changing world, and the emotional scars that decades of brutal violence left on the national psyche.

The novel opens on V-J Day, and follows nine-year-old Wally Baker’s maturation in the wake of a tragic loss. As Gaffney portentiously writes, “It wasn’t to be a day of firsts . . . it was a day of lasts.” This immediate juxtaposition between celebration and disaster, in addition to grabbing the reader’s attention, highlights a critical contrast that pervades the book. Despite all the parades thrown in 1945, and despite the rise to prominence of the perfect nuclear family, many actual families were still very much in pain. Wally’s home situation is a tumultuous one: she lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with an eccentric cast of family members and boarders. Throughout the novel, she has nothing like the insulated, carefree environment of a nuclear family—but this is precisely what causes her to grow up courageous, self-driven, and wise beyond her years. Gaffney’s incisive rendering of American history, along with her likeable, inquisitive protagonist, make When the World is Young a smart and enjoyable read.

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