In the first part of the 1Q84 trilogy celebrated Japanese author Murakami tells the sometimes surreal story of Aomame and Tengo in alternating chapters.
Aomame is a martial arts and fitness coach who also works as an assassin for a powerful dowager who is also in some ways her mentor. Her targets are men who have abused women or girls who need to be killed as a last resort, all other avenues of punishement having been explored.
Tengo on the other hand is a very much more urbane character. He is a maths tutor and part time writer. He is talked into rewriting the work of a teenage girl called Fuka-Eri by his agent with the aim of winning a literary prize and creating a best-seller.
The connection between Aomame and Tengo is that they briefly knew each other at school. Aomame holds the memory of Tengo in her heart and hopes to meet him again some day, and by the end of the trilogy no doubt she will. Tengo is more interested in the present; specifically Fuka-Eri, her novel and her curious back-story. He is also having an affair with a married women which satisfies his need for sex on a weekly basis. Aomame on the other hand only very rarely feels the need for a man, and when she does she is very specific about who she chooses to pick up.
The almost mundane intricacies of the two main characters’ everyday lives are mixed with the idea that Fuka-Eri’s story ‘Air Chrysalis’ seems to be bleeding into Aomame’s reality. Aomame quickly realises that she has somehow slipped into a parallel world and refers to her new reality, where two moons hang in the night sky, as 1Q84 rather than 1984 the year in which the trilogy is set.
Book One of the trilogy does seems to be loaded with exposition and back-story and does not sit well as a novel in its own right – it can only work as part of a trilogy. Murakami is an author who loves to investigate the minutae of a characters attitudes and habits, and sometimes this can get a little tiresome. Those unused to his style may wonder at times ‘why is he telling me all this?’ I guess it adds to the three-dimensionality of the characters, but sometimes this is better developed through their interactions or dialogoue with other characters. For this reason 1Q84 could be criticised as being rather slow at times.
If there is a third main character it is Fuka-Eri who has escaped a religious cult and claims her fantasy story of The Little People is real. Although she is only brought to us through the eyes of Tengo she contains the real mystery of the book. It is unclear at the close of the novel whether The Little People are evil or not, although they do seem to be connected to incidents of sexual abuse of minors by the cult’s leader.
After reading Murakami’s factual book on the Tokyo gas attacks it is little surprise that he has a mysterious cult as the centrepiece of this story which quite rightly mentions Orwell’s 1984 and the concept of Big Brother in passing. In comparison to his other books 1Q84 appears to be more ‘sexed up’ and at times Aomame’s escapades with a policewoman friend seem unnecessary. The sinister Little People and the cult are no doubt the key to the story and Book One does leave you wanting to see inside the cult and in its closing pages shows the reader just what the Little People are capable of.
On a purely practical note the combined trilogy as a book is ridiculously heavy and cumbersome. It is 925 pages in large paperback format, and while it may look impressive on a bookshelf with its black edged pages it is difficult to read comfortably. There is a good argument here for buying the individual volumes or getting it in an electronic format.