South of the Border, West of the Sun

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

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Summary

Hajime, currently a thirty-seven-year-old man, has an ideal life. Blessed with a beautiful wife, two young daughters, and no financial concerns, he is happier than most.

However, something is missing; something in Hajime is empty. The only caveat is… He doesn’t know what, why, or how to fill the void inside of him. Through Murakami’s achingly beautiful and alarmingly haunting writing, Hajime takes us back through the most meaningful relationships in his life in the hopes of discovering what he has lost in the process.


Memorable Quotes

“In the world I lived in, it was an accepted idea that only children were spoiled by their parents, weak, and self-centered. This was a given-like the fact that the barometer goes down the higher up you go and the fact that cows give milk. That’s why I hated it whenever someone asked me how many brothers and sisters I had. Just let them hear I didn’t have any and instinctively they thought: An only child, eh? Spoiled, weak, and self-centered, I betcha. That kind of knee-jerk reaction depressed me, and hurt. But what really depressed and hurt me was something else; the fact that everything they thought about me was true. I really was spoiled, weak, and self-centered,” (page 5).

“Second, no one around me-with the exception of Shimamoto, of course- ever listened to Liszt’s piano concertos. The very idea excited me. I’d found a world that no one around me knew-a secret garden only I was allowed to enter. I felt elevated, lifted to another plane of existence,” (page 11).

“‘There are some things in this world that can be done over, and some that can’t. And time passing is one thing that can’t be redone. Come this far, and you can’t go back. Don’t you think so?'” (Shimamoto; page 14).

“‘Now you’re able to think of a few things other than what’s under a girl’s skirt, right?’

‘A few,’ I said. ‘But if that’s got you worried, maybe next time you’d better wear pants!'” (page 146).

“‘You’re here,’ I continued. ‘At least you look as if you’re here. But maybe you aren’t. Maybe it’s just your shadow. The real you may be someplace else. Or maybe you already disappeared, a long, long time ago. I reach out my hand to see, but you’ve hidden yourself behind a cloud of probablys. Do you think we can go on like this forever?'” (page 170).

“‘ I told you I love you. What’s wrong with thinking about the body of the man you love? Haven’t you thought about my body?'” (page 182).

Probably is a word you may find south of the border. But never, west of the sun,” (page 196).


Thoughts

Funny enough, after telling my dad about the magical world of, After Dark, he purchased Haruki Murakami’s, South of the Border, West of the Sun, for me as a Christmas gift. And wow, I am so glad he chose this book in particular! If I had been choosing for myself, I may have chosen, Kafka on the Shore, or even, A Wild Sheep Chase.  However, after the first few pages (I say this a lot, don’t I?) I was hooked. Reading this book feels like looking through stained glass. The writing is irresistibly  impeccable, re calling the most minute details from the sounds in a crowded bar to a small fold in a woman’s skirt.

The plot of the book is fairly simple. With no science fiction or magical realism at hand, South of the Border, West of the Sun, presents itself as mundane. In fact, most of the book is about facing the mundane and mechanical realities of everyday life. Hajime is an only-child, (something that seems to plague him deeply) and spends most of the book ruminating about his life and closest relationships.

Hajime begins (which is ironic because Hajime also means, “beginning,” in Japanese) the story by describing his relationship with his childhood neighbor and close friend, Shimamoto. Shimamoto is introspective, shy, and also an only-child. Although she never mentions it herself, she is quite self-conscious due to a permanent limp she has in her left leg from polio. At the tender age of twelve, the two form what seems to be the very beginnings of a lifelong love story. However, everything goes awry when Hajime’s family moves.After being separated from his closest friend, Hajime is forced to begin his life anew. But despite the distance, for years after, Hajime constantly recalls on Shimamoto with fondness.

During his high school years, Hajime falls in love with the lovely Izumi. Timid yet curious, Izumi etches a fixed place in Hajime’s mind. Although he spends most of his time lusting after her, Hajime proves time and time again that he deeply cares about Izumi. However, like most things in Hajime’s life, everything about the relationship appears perfect, except there is a piece missing from each encounter they have.

This pattern continues on until Hajime is in his thirties and he happens to meet his wife, Yukiko. Then comes the house, the dream job, his two daughters, the happy life. But the images of what could have been… and what still could be, disrupt everything.

This novel features topic matter which should be mildly depressing to a sensitive reader such as myself. I tend to shy away from sad books due to the fact that when I read, I simply don’t want to be depressed. Sure, I love to think, but I don’t believe all intellectual musings need to be depressing. (This is why I disliked most of the readings I was assigned in high school. Can we please have some comedies once in awhile?) However, something about Murakami’s writing in, South of the Border, West of the Sun, comes off as distant. When Hajime describes events in his life, he seems to hold his feelings at arm’s length. I am not sure if this was intentional, but somehow, any emotion in the book is dulled down to the point where you may feel something, but it may not be as painful as you imagined it would be. And this is neither to criticize the book, nor Murakami’s writing; in fact, it is quite the opposite.

While reading, I felt as if I was in a trance. Time was passing by, yet reading about Hajime’s life is the equivalent of looking at colorful blur of light from a fast-moving car. This makes sense because a major theme in the book is the flow of time. The idea that you can only move forward, is prevalent throughout the entire book and expressed by each character. This theme definitely reminded of, The Great Gatsby, (one high school read I did enjoy) due to certain characters’ obsessions with nostalgia and reliving forgotten moments.

Overall, I truly enjoyed reading this book. I adore Murakami’s writing because it can make any situation feel extraordinary and magical. To me, Murakami’s writing is the equivalent of the Midas Touch; anything he writes turns to gold. The characters, the imagery, the themes, etc. However, another special feature of his writing is that is makes me think more deeply about the world around me. Not in a depressing way, but in a hopeful way. His style is calmly and patiently observant. Murakami writes as if he has seen the world, lived it, observed it, and discovered its secrets. The only thing left to do is for him to leave the clues for everyone else to discover its meanings on his or her own.

 

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The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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Summary

Rachel’s life is the epitome of mundane. Each day her biggest excursion  is commuting to and from work on the London train. But unlike the other passengers , what thrills Rachel the most about her commute is gazing at the stretch of cozy Victorian homes  mingling along the tracks. Her favorite house, number 23,  is home to a beautiful couple who Rachel nicknames, Jess and Jason. During the few minutes the train stops for construction on the tracks, Rachel watches the couple as they relax out on their terrace and live out the promises of domestic bliss.

Jess and Jason represent everything Rachel has lost; her husband, her home, and most importantly, her sanity. However, watching Jess and Jason also gives Rachel solace that happiness still exists in outside of her own shattered world. That is, until she sees something strange happening on Jess and Jason’s terrace the following day.

Without a warning, Rachel finds herself mixed into a world where her own fantasies blend into hard, cold reality. She becomes a witness, but an unreliable one at that. Struggling against a streak of heavy drinking and violence on her record, Rachel desperately attempts to warn the police of everything she believes she has seen from her small window on the train.

Constantly shifting narration between three of the novel’s main female characters, the reader is provided a glimpse into the web of lies we tell ourselves and the tainted realities we live. Each woman uses her own unique, yet eerily similar experience to illustrate the boundaries the human mind. More than anything, The Girl on the Train, begs one main question:

How far we are willing to go in order to grasp at our own corrupt fantasies?


Memorable Quotes

“There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.” (Rachel POV)

“And I’ve just got to let myself feel the pain, because if I don’t, if I keep numbing it, it’ll never really go away.” (Rachel POV)

“I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.” (Rachel POV)

“Beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies, no one to play with, nothing to do. Living like this, the way I’m living at the moment, is harder in the summer when there is so much daylight, so little cover of darkness, when everyone is out and about, being flagrantly, aggressively happy. It’s exhausting, and it makes you feel bad if you’re not joining in.” (Rachel POV)

“It’s ridiculous, when I think about it. How did I find myself here? I wonder where it started, my decline; I wonder at what point I could have halted it. Where did I take the wrong turn?”  (Rachel POV)

“Who’s to say that once I run, I’ll find that isn’t enough? Who’s to say I won’t end up feeling exactly the way I do right now-not safe, but stifled? Maybe I’ll want to run again, and again, and eventually I’ll end up back on those old tracks, because there’s nowhere left to go. Maybe. Maybe not. You have to take the risk, don’t you?” (Megan POV)


Thoughts

First of all, I appreciate how engaging this book was right from the very first page. Even though I love reading, (I am an English major after all) sometimes I have a difficult time picking up a book and sticking with it. But with The Girl on the Train, I never encountered this problem. In fact, I began reading it while lounging around SFO at 3 in the morning! Despite being sleep-deprived and anxious for my trip, I was drawn into the crazy world of seemingly innocent train rides and man-made mayhem.

What I loved most about reading this thriller was experiencing the perspectives of the three very different narrators. Each woman is complicated in her own way; facing different, yet eerily similar, demons. Themes throughout the book range from abuse to motherhood, sexual power/politics to mental illness, and everything in-between. It is not a cheery novel for the slight of heart. In fact, it is a novel where the reader must be willing to get his or her hands dirty and, dare I say it, “take a ride on the wild side.”

Rachel is the main character and particularly unique one at that. She acts as both a passive and active force within the progression of the storyline as she transforms from watcher, into actor. When the reader is first introduced to Rachel, she seems somewhat normal. However, as  the reader becomes more and more acquainted with her stream of consciousness, it becomes very clear that Rachel has a conundrum of deep-rooted, complicated issues.

Rachel’s most notable characteristics are her alcoholism and  her fascination with watching people. So basically, Rachel is a voyeur and an alcoholic. Now, the only issue with describing Rachel as a “voyeur,” is that at first many of her watchful habits seem more innocent than the word suggests. In the beginning of the book, Rachel talks about simply watching the couple from the train because she wants their life. In that train of thought, what she is exhibiting is not voyeurism, but sonderism. However, as the story goes on, it is clear Rachel consistently straddles the line between being a voyeur and experiencing true sonder for the first time.

It begs the questions, what happens when we discover the tangled lives of others? Do we belong in their webs, or does each of us too stuck on our own paths to join another? Or we capable of fighting for the greater good, or are we too selfish to care? From cheating to murder and mayhem, The Girl on the Train, tugs at the very strings of humanity.