By Haruki Murakami
Penguin, $NZ35 | Reviewed by Jennifer Wittig

HARUKI MURAKAMI’s latest novel, After Dark, is simply a delight to read. Written in a Kafkaesque style, with Beckett-like settings and characters, Murakami returns to a form in which he’s previously succeeded. He is known to create humorous and surreal stories with touches of humanity in them (love, loneliness, alienation) and this has enabled him to reach a wider audience outside of Japan.

The main theme of this novel is that of alienation between two sisters, Eri and Mari. Eri is the beautiful sister, the one who has been modelling since a very early age and whom the parents of the girls see as the “better” sister. Mari meanwhile has taken the role as the intelligent sister, the one who is not beautiful but diligent. One struggles under the pressure of being perfect, whilst the other suffers from lack of attention. Both sisters have these problems without the other realising it, thus becoming alienated from one another.

Enter Takahashi – a trombone playing student who meets up with Mari at a Denny’s restaurant in the early hours of the morning. He knows both the sisters and provides the bridge between the two girls, listening to Mari slowly but surely opening up about her and her sister’s complicated intertwined relationship. Both believe the life of the other to be easier; Eri thinks Mari has it easy because she has no pressure on her, and Mari believes Eri has a simpler life because she is perfect. Takahashi enables Mari to make the first step to reconciling herself with Eri towards the end of the novel.

Meanwhile Eri, who has decided that she needs a break from society is sleeping and is being watched by someone sinister; a darkly clad person whom the reader never gets to know more of. Eri clearly suffers from social withdrawal at being unable to deal with the perfection label applied to her. Whilst Eri sleeps throughout the entire novel, it is clear that Mari cannot sleep.

The story is very well written and tightly woven. As the reader you worry for Eri inside the room by herself with someone watching. It’s a satisfying ending to the story when Mari comes in to join Eri in bed. This eases the tension and also gives some kind of comfort to Eri. Both sisters sleep together at the end, which gives hope to the reader that both will wake up in the morning.

In between there is an interlude at a sleazy hotel where Mari gives a lending hand to the hotel manager. A prostitute has been beaten by her client, and only Mari can talk to her in her own language, Chinese. The video cameras reveal the perpetrator and the novel tracks him down, surveying his nightly routine, though we never find out if the beaten girls’ ‘pimps’ get him. It is something the reader is left to ponder over.

There is also a hint at the end of the novel of a romantic involvement between Takahashi and Mari, and that he will wait for Mari to finish her studies in China. She is still uncertain of herself, but somehow the boy and the night’s adventures have given her a little more confidence.

The characters are minimal and bare yet so concisely written that you do not need more information. The ending doesn’t answer anything but it still makes it clear cut and finished. The setting could be anywhere, which makes it universal and light. The only ‘real’ thing in the dreamscape-like novel is the chronology, displayed at the start of each chapter.

Haruki Murakami’s characters remind me of Angela Carter’s, in The Magic Toyshop; that feeling of going nowhere, of being labelled and of trying to find your place in a world that seems to have no place for you.

“In both that room and this room, time is passing at the same uniform rate. Both are immersed into the same temporality. We know this from the occasional slow rising and falling of the man’s shoulders. Wherever the intention of each might lie, we are together being carried along at the same speed down the same river of time.”