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Haruki Murakami's "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman": A Book Review

[Previously published in the December 2006 issue of the Kansai Time Out]

J.D. Salinger published seven of his Nine Stories in the illustrious New Yorker magazine. Two were rejected. Of the 25 stories that make up Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, the third (translated to) English collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami, nine were published in the New Yorker. Like Salinger, Murakami’s fiction not only has literary cache (rumor has it he’s now being considered for the Nobel Prize), his books sell millions of copies around the world.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a career spanning collection that includes two of the first short stories Murakami wrote 25 years ago through to stories published last year. In this collection we get both the surreal, with stories of talking monkeys and of icemen who date Japanese women, and we also get the real, with stories about everyday people dealing with cancer, sexuality and the loss of their children.

At their best these stories, like Murakami’s strongest novels, sink deep within the reader’s psyche. His stories have the power to make you dream differently. How Murakami does this may seem beguiling. The secret, I believe, is in the balancing. Murakami grounds the surreal stories in the mundane while managing to bask the realistic stories in an other-worldly glow. In “The Iceman” the main character meets the iceman, her future lover, in the lobby of a ski resort. There the iceman is, just reading a book. In “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”, on the other hand, Murakami turns a simple bus ride through the woods into a moment out of a dream. The story begins, "When I closed my eyes the scent of the wind wafted up towards me." The narrator compares the May wind coming through the bus window to the breaking open of a fruit. "The flesh split open in mid-air, spraying seeds like gentle buckshot into the bare skin of my arms, leaving behind a faint trace of pain."

To slip into Murakami’s world, to get into his stories never feels like work and the trick, again, is in the balance. In an era of not knowing how to slow down, Murakami’s stories never feel rushed. There is always a slow easiness to them no matter how heavy the topic, death and loss being common themes. And though the stories never feel overly dark or depressing, rarely do we get serenity without a sense of its exact opposite. In “Man Eating Cats,” a Japanese couple lives the perfect life on a Greek island. Each day is spent eating the simplest foods, drinking wine and making love. What the narrator describes as “the most peaceful time” in his whole life doesn’t last. The narrator’s girlfriend goes missing, the story ends and we’re left with no indication where she went or that she will ever be found.

Like most Murakami fiction the “point” of these stories is not always clear. Readers looking for straight narratives with lesson-drawing endings may feel frustrated, like they don’t "get it". The stories are more for those who can relate when a character in “A Poor Aunt Story” says, “For some reason, things that grabbed me were things I didn’t understand."

What is clear is that the 25 stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman linger in the mind like lucid dreams; carrying you along like a gentle breeze while containing enough weight to resonate.