BOOK REVIEW: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women is a collection of seven stories about, as its title predicts, men without women. But, if you’re even mildly familiar with contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami, you’ll know that is not all he has to offer. The tales detail men with and without women. He explores the intricacies of the relationship between the two genders: either through romances, friendships, one night stands, or work partnerships.

‘Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand.’ (Men Without Women)

The collection as a whole tackles loneliness and love, heartache and happiness, death and distance, as does every individual story. Each of the seven features a different male protagonist, who is sometimes, but not always, the narrator. “Drive My Car” depicts a widowed actor, “Scheherazade” a man under house arrest, “Kino” a divorced bar-manager. All walk different paths in life, but are linked in the experience of walking them. Murakami illustrates differences to reveal similarities: we are all bound by the emotions we feel and the situations that make us feel them.

‘That’s what we all do: endlessly take the long way around.’ (Yesterday)

For those familiar with Murakami’s other work, the stories featured in his new release echo the likes of his short story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” (from The Elephant Vanishes) and my personal favourite of his novels, Norwegian Wood. Although Men Without Women does have the same surreal elements that gave the author his reputation as a magical realist, these stories focus more on the human condition, exploring emotional reactions rather than physical happenings. Read these pages with a highlighter in hand, for Murakami is a master of one-liners. You’ll want to return to the phrases that gave you goose bumps, those that made you giggle or reminded you of ‘that time when’. There is something for everyone here, and you won’t have to read too far between the lines to find it.

‘Truth be told, he had never felt the urge to revisit a former life. He had his hands full with the present one.’ (Scheherazade)

A skill of Murakami’s is that he not only knows how to sugar-coat, but when to sugar-coat. The characters in each of these stories are painfully realistic. Not every woman is breathtakingly beautiful and not every man is God-like. Female chauffeur Misaki in “Drive My Car” is depicted as mechanical; she is ever-punctual and never smiles. “Samsa in Love” features a hunchbacked woman with perpetual spasms. Murakami’s men might be without women, but they are not without flaws. The narrator in “Yesterday” describes how he ‘wanted to become a totally different person’, a struggle we can all relate to. Dr. Tokai in “An Independent Organ” lets his love blind him to the point where he loses all sense of himself. Even when characters are not instantly likeable, they are believable, three-dimensional, real.

‘Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.’ (Samsa in Love)

If you are looking for plot-heavy and action-packed stories, this is not the collection for you. Murakami’s tales are character studies; in-depth explorations of the way humans interact. Although primarily focused on the bond between man and woman, the author also details male friendships, as well as the connection between humans and animals. The topics are not always happy. In fact, the majority are quite heavy-hearted. Dark themes are explored, including suicide, disappearances, and mental illnesses. But Murakami’s writing is hypnotising; you won’t feel melancholic after finishing this collection. It is a read both fast and slow: you’ll devour the characters but savour the writing. And later reread to savour the characters and devour the writing.

‘“But, Mr. Kafuku, can any of us ever perfectly understand another person? However much we may love them?”’ (Drive My Car)

If men really are from Mars and women are from Venus, then Murakami’s Men Without Women is a brave, poignant, and thought-provoking attempt to bring these planets into the same orbit. This is a timeless collection, one that deserves to be read over and over again because it encourages readers to reflect. For men will never truly exist without women. Regardless of our gender, we are linked by our experiences, qualities, and emotions, all of which are human.

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami picture

Haruki Murakami is the author of many novels as well as short stories and non-fiction. His books include Norwegian WoodThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and The Strange Library. His work has been translated into more than 50 languages, and the most recent of his many international honours is the Jerusalem Prize.

Men Without Women was published by Harvill Secker on 9th May 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Men Without Women from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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To discover more about Harvill Secker click here

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Review by Alice Kouzmenko

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