Book Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Posted November 21, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 11 Comments

Book Review:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Published by Knopf on October 2011
Genres: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 944
Source: my shelves

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1Q84 (pronounced “kyu-teen-eighty-four”) was originally published in Japan in 2009-10 as three separate novels. Its title is a play on words of sorts, with the letter “Q” and the Japanese word for the number 9 (kyu) being homophones. As you may have already guessed, the title is also a reference to George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984.

Murakami’s dystopian novel takes place in Japan in 1984 and begins by introducing us to Aomame, the first of two main characters whom the story follows. Aomame is in a taxi, stuck in a traffic jam on an elevated expressway, and she has an appointment that she must be on time for. The taxi driver tells her that she can still make it to her appointment on time if she takes his suggestion and follows his instructions: there is an emergency pull-off a few yards away from where they are stuck in traffic and if she gets out of the cab and walks to the pull-off, there is an emergency stairwell of sorts that leads down to the street below the expressway. Once she gets down to street level, she can simply take the subway to her destination and make it to her appointment on time. Aomame decides to take the taxi driver’s advice, but before she gets out of the taxi the driver gives her one last piece of advice: things are not what they seem, and she needs to remember that although things may look different once she gets down to the ground, there is always only one reality. Aomame doesn’t really understand why the taxi driver is telling her this, but she thanks him, gets out of the taxi and follows his instructions to get down to the street below. She will soon discover that by taking the stairs down from the expressway, she has also entered some kind of parallel/alternate reality–one that she soon dubs “1Q84”–that is best distinguished by an anomaly in its night-time sky.

The next scene in the book introduces us to Tengo, the other main character of the book who is an aspiring novelist and who works as a math instructor at a cram school (prep school). In this scene, Tengo is asked by an editor whom he is friendly with to rewrite a book originally written by 17-year-old author Fuka-Eri. Her book, Air Chrysalis, is being considered for an award but will never win if it is presented in its current writing style. Tengo knows that ghostwriting this book is a dangerous venture; if it should win the award and if people should find out that it has been rewritten by a ghostwriter, it could ruin the reputations and careers of everyone involved. Little does Tengo know that rewriting Air Chrysalis will have far larger and stranger effects on his life than any he had previously imagined.

1Q84 is broken up into its three original books, with each book covering three months of the story: Book 1 tells the story from April-June, Book 2 includes the events of July-September, and Book 3 finishes up the story with the months of October-December. The story is told by alternating between the perspectives of Aomame and Tengo, and as it progresses, their individual narratives start to converge and we learn that they are connected in many ways. In true Murakami fashion, as Aomame and Tengo search for one another and as their paths come closer together, some very strange people enter the story and some very strange things happen. In 1Q84, Murakami writes about love, family relationships, friendship, literature, history, religious cults, violence and murder. 1Q84 is part love story, part fantasy, part mystery, and all typical-Murakami-weirdness. He reminds us that there is an extremely thin line between perception and reality.

As usual, Murakami leaves a lot of the story open to interpretation and it will leave you thinking for weeks (or possibly months) about what you’ve just read. Since I’m still thinking about it, and because I don’t want to give any spoilers here, I won’t go into my personal conjectures about what all of it might mean. I would, however, like to say something about the obvious recurring elements in every Murakami book I’ve read so far: music, food, and clothing.

Throughout the five Murakami novels I’ve read, food (and drink), music and clothing are written about in great detail. The characters make very particular choices concerning those things, although Murakami sometimes tries to make those choices seem nonchalant. As the always-hilarious Amanda of Dead White Guys put it…

In addition to writing about the characters’ individual tastes, Murakami often weaves a particular song or two into the actual plots of his stories. When I first learned of Murakami last year, I did some research before I started reading his books. I found out that he has always been influenced by Western culture, and no one can deny that our culture as a whole takes its food, music, and clothing very seriously. I also learned that Murakami’s first job was in a record store, and he later opened a coffee house/jazz bar with his wife. All of that could explain why he puts so much emphasis on those three elements in his stories, even though they might not be a direct part of the plot. While reading my first Murakami novel (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) I kept asking myself, “Why do I need to know these things? Why does he keep putting so much importance into exactly what the characters are wearing and eating?” Then I started to enjoy it. I realized that telling us those things about the characters really brought them to life and made the whole story more believable. We all make those decisions every day: what to wear, why we’ve chosen those particular items of clothing, what we’re going to eat and why. And most of us are pretty picky about the music we listen to. I know I am. I have come to expect and love those details from Murakami when I’m reading one of his novels. Those personal details about his characters are a natural part of the way Murakami tells a story and I think I would be disappointed now without them. The way he writes gives me a fantastic mental image of everything that’s happening. He makes it all feel so very real.

I’ve not yet read a book by Murakami that I haven’t liked and 1Q84 was no exception. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading good literary fiction and/or fantasy.

Have you read 1Q84 yet? What are your thoughts?

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(To learn more about Haruki Murakami, please visit his author page on the Random House website.)

**If you choose to purchase this title using the links below, I will receive a small percentage of the sale (to be used toward site maintenance and buying more books).

Amazon | Powell’s Books | IndieBound

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  • You liked it?! WOOHOO! (I’m slacking – still haven’t started. But soon. I promise.)

    Very nice review, too – this got me even more excited to fire up. I love that not everything makes sense in Murakami – and it’s up to you to decide what does and what doesn’t, what’s important and what’s not, and what resonates and what doesn’t.

    • Yes! I really liked it!

      That’s one of the things that I’ve grown to love about Murakami’s books, too. They would make awesome book club/discussion picks because there would be as many interpretations as there are people in the group.

  • Ben

    Just started reading this book and I’m loving the opening pages!
    Where did you get kyu-teen-eighty-four from? I read that it’s meant to be 1Q84 as in, One Q Eighty-Four (or ichi-kyu-hachi-yon in Japanese) and not nineteen eighty-four.

    • Yes, your translation is also correct because it’s the literal translation of each of the Japanese characters in “1Q84.” I learned of the other translation on a couple different major websites (I can’t remember which ones) when someone brought it up on Twitter and I did a search.

  • Heather, what a great review! Your review is the first that I’ve read that talks about the pronunciation of the title. I had no idea. In my head I keep calling it “1-Q-8-4”. I have it on hold at the library but now I’m wondering if I should put the print version on hold.

    • I was pronouncing it 1-Q-84 until I read about that pronunciation. My mind still says it that way often. Haha!

  • I also liked this book a lot (my thoughts: http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=3667). I liked the whole idea of a fake world, that perception is everything whereas reality doesn’t really exist.

  • Great review. So far, this is one of the only reviews I’ve read of this book that make me want to pick it up.

  • Pingback: Book Review: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 - Opinionless()

  • A few reflections on your review and 1Q84
    (SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read the entire novel):

    I like your thoughts on Murakami’s detailed writings about music, food, and clothing. I’m sure this is something which annoys many Murakami readers, especially when he writes about food as if he was quoting from a cookbook. But whether you like it or not, it is something deeply idiosyncratic when it comes to Murakami, and to me, this is almost always a good thing, because a unique authorial voice cannot be too bad. And the background it gives you on the characters is also very important for understanding them. As to his music and literature references: I always enjoy when there’s one (e.g. Dickens or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which was especially nice), and I love how he connects the characters by way of his music references. There’s always the danger of appearing pretentious if an author does this too often, but I think Murakami pulls it off nicely (Marisha Pessl’s use of references is a bit over the top, if you want to read a book with many many references).

    The book I liked most was really the first one, because I started to enjoy how Murakami developed his characters. I think that he put too much emphasis on the rules of the parallel universe in the second and third book, just to finish the novel without resolving too many of its riddles (one of them: what was Tengo’s entry into 1Q84?). I think that it is typically Murakami to leave things open and make you think about riddles (even if there is no answer to find), and I don’t like it too much, but I still liked the changed rules of the 1Q84 world compared to the 1984 world. So there are two sides to this story. The one thing that always annoys me about postmodern fiction is that the postmodern elements almost always get in the way of character development, and it annoyed me in 1Q84. All in all, this was still a very fascinating read, a good book, and I’m glad I’ve finally read something by Murakami.

    • I have read a few of Murakami’s books now, so I’ve gotten used to the open endings and having to interpret things for myself. It really frustrated me at first (and some of it still does frustrate me, admittedly).

      As far as character development, I really wish we could have known more about Tamaru. I know we discussed this a little bit on Twitter already, but he was probably my favorite character and I think a whole book could be written about him.