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South of the Border, West of the Sun

I have been keeping South of the Border, West of the Sun close to my heart because there is only a handful Haruki Murakami’s books (in fact, three more) I haven’t read and I wanted it to be special.

As the first few pages of the book turn, it bears resemblance to the Norwegian Wood storyline, except it is more elegiac, melancholic, more honest and more mature, in my opinion. While many of Murakami’s books took the bizarre and the surreal turn, including Sputnik Sweetheart, this book has none of it at all. No missing cat, no imagery into another world, just plain and simple story about a man in his mid-life who wish for something more in his life.

The story centres around a 37-year-old successful owner of two jazz clubs, married with two kids and seemingly happy in a relationship with his wife, Yukiko. He recalls his growing up years. When he is 12-year-old he fell in love with a girl in his class, Shimamoto. Shimamoto is a precocious and strong-willed girl, inflicted with polio she walks by dragging her left leg which only helps to add on to her character and which leaves a deep impression on Hajime who calls it “a terrible load of psychological baggage … that made her a tougher, more self-possessed only child than I could ever have been.” They spend a brief part of their childhood together listening to old Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby records and revel in a shared understanding of what it’s like to be the only child in their families. They hold hands once and to him the 10 second clasp was a revelation for Hajime that Shimamoto is the one.

“I was always attracted not by some quantifiable, external beauty, but by something deep down, something absolute. I liked that certain undefinable something directed at me by members of the opposite sex. for want of a better word, call it magnetism. Like it or not, it’s a power that ensnares people and reels them in.” – page 37

It is chemistry, Mr Murakami. It is called chemistry.

Time passes and Hajime has to leave for secondary school and move to a different school in a different part of town and the two friends drifted apart. Hajime attend school, university and have many other relationships, some girls have pleased him and one girl he has hurt badly. Through it all, his thoughts often wander back to Shimamoto – wondering what became of her and how much he wanted to see her again. Some days Hajime thought he saw Shimamoto in the street.

Soon Hajime married Yukiko and have two daughters whom he love dearly. Inspite of this he wonder if he could see Shimamoto again.

Hajime of course met Shimamoto again (otherwise the novel wouldn’t have any significance if they don’t!) and find himself propelled into the mysterious realm of her life. Overcome by pity, enchantment and desire, he decides that he must risk everything that he has for the chance to consummate his first love.

She appears out of the blue and then she disappears. Then for months Hajime did not hear from Shimamoto and then she reappears again. This is perhaps the only surreal element in the book. At some point I think Shimamoto may be just a figment of Hajime’s imagination or she is an apparition or a ghost, as it seems to imply that she could leave in the middle of the night without a sound, from a lodge in the middle of the woods. One wonders also about her own private life – what is it that she is running away from? What is it that keeps her from coming to see Hajime? She never divulges these circumstances and we never find out.

If you ever been in love, you will find the missing of someone only makes your heart grow fonder. I always wonder if it is human nature to always crave for the unobtainable, and where the absence of the one thing you wanted most only deepen the insatiable desire to have it? This to me is the central theme of the book. It is about what we do when we lost and found someone we loved, or still love, in a different circumstances in our lives. The cruelty of all is that time waits for no one, not even love. I think it is impossible to fit the past into present, if one decide to he or she will be liable to hurt many people that he or she holds precious in the present moment.

South is a short read and I finish it within a day, putting my July number of books read to a respectable five. Although the novel is short, it leaves a lasting impression on me. At one point in our lives, we do all wonder about the right one we were fated to meet and love but somehow didn’t. Some of us go on living, moving forward. While a few of us live but always looking back with half a heart in the present and the other half somewhere else, always trying to recapture a past that is long gone.

I confess I am one who is always living in the past. Over the years I have learnt to live in the present and if I do remember the past now, it is not because of any particular person but it is because of the youth and the happier times when my heart is not so burdened. Those are the beautiful memories that I or you are entitled to hold on to, but do not forget to create many more beautiful memories now and in the future.

“The void is simply that, a void. I’ve been in that void before and forced myself to adjust. And now, finally, I end up where I began and I’d better get used to it. No one will weave dreams for me – it is my turn to weave dreams for others. That’s what I have to do. Such dreams may have no power, but if my own life is to have any meaning at all, that is what I have to do.” – page 186

Simple, powerful and authentically Haruki Murakami, I recommend it.


Paperback. Publisher: Harvill Press, 1999; Length: 187 pages; Setting: Japan. Source: Own copy. Finished reading on the 31st  July 2012.

Recommend that you read Tony’s hilarious review on the same book: Tonys Reading List : it’s girl thing it’s guy thing

I think Hajime is a jerk especially when you think about what he did to Izumi, but he has been honest and I’m reading into his mind, I withheld my judgement and I understand where he is coming from.

I’m reading this for the J-lit 6 challenge and Murakami challenge 2012.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


30 thoughts on “South of the Border, West of the Sun

  1. You’re a lot more sympathetic than I was 😉 It is a good book, but I had trouble with Hajime – in fact, I think the Murakami books I like the least are those where the protagonist is not the usual happy, hopeless bumbler…

    Posted by Tony | August 4, 2012, 11:27 am
    • Tony,
      You have been hard on Hajime! Reading about hopeless bumbler affects my appreciation of the story as well. I’d rather that Hajimie is successful and thinking of ways to live his life to the fullest! (I’m not encouraging anyone should take the route he inspire to take).

      Posted by JoV | August 4, 2012, 6:58 pm
  2. You make me want to read this. It’s been too long since I picked up a Murakami. I did re-read The Wind up Bird Chronicle earlier in the year though and and that was just as good second time around.

    Posted by Fiona | August 4, 2012, 12:25 pm
    • Fiona,
      I think you will like this. This book, along with Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart are love stories. Less surreal, more down-to-earth and very different. Another side of Murakami I must say. Give it a go, let me know what you think about it!

      Posted by JoV | August 4, 2012, 7:00 pm
  3. Very good review.

    Posted by Mel u | August 4, 2012, 12:33 pm
  4. I have been waiting for this review. Finally!!! 😀

    Posted by Ting Ting | August 4, 2012, 4:40 pm
  5. I, too, hold Murakami close to my heart…I have more than three I have to read, but I’m not in a hurry because when I’ve read them all, I’ve read them all, and the only thing to do is start over. But, there’s always the wonder of the very first time through something.

    Your last paragraph moved me very much. It’s hard (for me, sometimes) to live in the present and not wonder about the past. That’s fruitless thinking, especially when things can’t be changed, and it’s also easy to glamorize that which one doesn’t have. But still, one wonders what could have been…

    Posted by Bellezza | August 5, 2012, 12:09 am
    • Bellezza,
      That’s a good idea Bellezza, I can always re-read Murakami’s books! 🙂
      Yes I agree we glamorise the unobtainable and what-ifs and what-could-have-been and fail to see what we already have.
      To a certain extent I believe in destiny and fate. I may think about the past but I believe what is set out in front of me is the best for me.

      Posted by JoV | August 5, 2012, 11:28 am
  6. I haven’t read this one, but Norwegian Wood is my least favourite Murakami and so your comparison is a little disappointing.

    I do love what you say in your review: “do not forget to create many more beautiful memories now and in the future.” Beautifully put 🙂

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | August 5, 2012, 5:48 pm
    • Jackie,
      I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like Norwegian Wood. I like parts of it but I wouldn’t rave about it like many readers would. I do think sometimes the best way to live is to look forward. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | August 5, 2012, 7:18 pm
  7. YES, this is the Murakami book I read and finally I get to nod knowledgeably while reading your review! ;D I really enjoyed the book, too, especially his mix of mystery and the sense of the realness of Hajime’s feelings.
    In other news, my copy of the DuMaurier book arrived so just say the word and we can start our readalong! 🙂

    Posted by Bina | August 5, 2012, 10:01 pm
  8. I’m so glad you reviewed this book! And that you liked it 🙂 South of the Border… is one of the few Murakami books that I haven’t read yet either. I don’t feel like picking up his non-fiction yet and the last novel of his I read was The End of the World… and I didn’t like that one much 😦
    A Du Maurier read-along? When?? I’m in!!

    Posted by Chinoiseries | August 12, 2012, 4:37 pm
  9. Not my favourite (Kafka on the shore) but enjoyed it enough to read more of Murakami until now the only one I’ve not read is Hear the wind sing.

    Posted by parrish lantern | August 14, 2012, 7:15 pm
  10. Great review Jo. I read this book 2 or 3 years ago and I have to say I like this one way more than Norwegian Wood, this has more depth.

    Posted by Novroz | August 18, 2012, 9:50 am
  11. Great review! I had read that book a year ago and I enjoyed reading it. That’s my favorite line too..

    Posted by ninesiri | August 23, 2012, 3:48 am
  12. I did not read this review because I’m actually reading this book right now!

    Posted by Ryan | September 29, 2012, 5:03 pm
  13. Just read it. It’s minor by Murakami’s standards (so pretty great). People are pretty harsh on that character, aren’t they? I mean, how DARE he not be a paragon of marital fidelity and instead pursue the love of his life? Yuck.

    Posted by Hans | September 18, 2014, 1:29 pm


  1. Pingback: It’s a wrap : July 2012 « JoV's Book Pyramid - August 7, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
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A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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