I’ve been a pretty avid reader of Murakami for some time now and as such made sure this new release got on my list as soon as possible. As luck would have it, my hold came through only a few days after finding myself in-between books for the first time in several months.
Men Without Women is a collection of short stories featuring male protagonists and their complex, often troubled, relationships with women in their lives. Rather dark in tone, issues of death, separation, and personal/societal estrangement are common features throughout all the stories in this volume. Each character is lost in some way and have either resigned themselves to their situation or spend their days searching for something within themselves that may or may not be within their power to find.
On the whole I found this collection to be something of a mixed bag. There were a few stories that I liked, but aside from those none of the others appealed to me as much as I had hoped they would. The overall feel of the book was generally very bleak and it didn’t seem to have that same sense of magical realism that usually draws me into Murakami’s work. While each story was without a doubt well-written, Murakami does an excellent job setting a scene and building characters throughout, these just wasn’t really what I was looking for. None of the characters captured my interest all that much and as such I couldn’t get fully invested in their stories. Appropriately enough, I didn’t make it through the one from which the collection took its name.
That said, there were two stories that I was particularly taken by. Kino, my favorite of the group, is the story of a recently divorced man trying to open a new chapter in his life by converting his aunt’s tea house into a bar. When something happens to drive away his two most reliable guests, a mysterious book-reading man and a stray cat, Kino is advised to get out of town for a while and lay low. This was the one story that really left me wanting more and also the one that best captured the otherworldly mysticism that usually draws me into Murakami’s books. The other note-worthy story for me was Samsa in Love, a tale far creepier and horror-like than anything I’ve read from Murakami to date. It’s protagonist, a man named Samsa, regains consciousness in a boarded up room. Disoriented and in a great deal of pain, he gradually comes to his senses and begins exploring his surroundings, taking step by excruciating step through an unfamiliar house. As he does so, the reader slowly gets the impression that something is very wrong. Samsa doesn’t seem fully comfortable inside his body and certain thoughts suggest that he may not have always been human. His awkward interactions with a hunchbacked young woman he encounters adds to the sense of foreboding and gives the story a very eerie vibe that for better or worse goes unresolved.
Overall though, I surprised to say that I consider this book a miss for me, a rarity from this author. After reading a number of other reviews I realize that I am in an extreme minority in my opinion here, so I’ll say that dedicated Murakami fans would probably find this worth checking out (I wouldn’t fault someone else for being more into these stories than I was). That said, for someone new to the author I would personally recommend they start elsewhere.