Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
This is the second Murakami novel I've read, and of the two I preferred this one. I liked The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but this novel kept me much more focused and interested. This might be because I knew what to expect a little bit more, so I wasn't as baffled with certain aspects of the novel. I would also say this one is slighty more straightforward - which is not at all the same as saying that everything makes sense and is explained but I felt like there were fewer tangents that didn't tie together, and I also liked the characters in this one much more.
The novel alternates between two charactes for each chapter. Kafka (not his real name) is a fifteen year old that has been planning on running away from home on his fifteenth birthday for ages, and that day has finally arrived. He picks one town that he is drawn to for some reason, and decides to go there. He doesn't have much of a plan, but he has some money, and part of him wants to find his mother and sister. He also wants to get away from his father. There are many people that take an interest in Kafka enroute and assist him on his journey of self-discovery. This part is actually narrated in the first person by Kafka himself, and he comes off as much more mature than most fifteen year olds would.
At first, the chapters between Kafka's are interviews concerning a peculiar event that occurred during the last few months of World War II. During an excursion in the woods, an entire class of children became inexplicably unconscious at the same time only to wake back up several hours later, seemingly unaffected. All that is except one - Nakata. Nakata stays in a coma for several weeks before suddenly waking up just as mysteriously as he became unconscious but has forgotten everything - his name, the ability to read and write, everything. After this initial set up, the rest of the chapters follow Nakata, who has the ability to speak to cats. He becomes involved in an odd set of events after which he also has a certain need to go westward though it is unclear to him where exactly or why. The narratives are of course related and head to a point where they will intersect or cross, even if only slightly.
While both parts of the story were well-written, I especially looked forward to the chapters involving Nakata. Both sections contain magic realism and mystical/supernatural elements, but they play more of a role in Nakata's story, especially in the beginning. I think part of my love for Nakata's storyline probably had a lot to do with the fact that he could speak to cats as well - as a kid, one of my favorite books was Joan Aiken's The Kingdom and the Cave (in German it was called Der Zauberschatz von Astalon) which had a talking cat as one of its main characters. I'm not sure if it's even in print anymore (I think she's most well-known for one I knew as Woelfe ums Schloss - something involving wolves and a castle) and I don't know what happened to my old copy.
Murakami doesn't tie up all the loose ends or even try to explain half the things that happened. A few of the things can be guessed or assumed based on the novel but it's not as if he ever comes out and gives a complete answer. However, the novel was so beautifully written and the characters so engaging that I really didn't mind that at all, and just enjoyed it. I wouldn't have minded a few more cats, though . . .