What I liked about The Strange Library in a snapshot:
- It is a beautifully produced hardback full of unusual, quirky illustrations and graphic designs. The images, photographs and collages keep the reader entertained and alert.
- It is written by one of my favourite authors.
- It is a book for children … but is it?
- It reminded me why I like Murakami’s work after my dissapointment with the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage last year.
When I first read The Strange Library a few weeks ago I was a bit puzzled. It is a story about a boy who enters his usual library to find that it has turned into something quite unusual and sinister. I found it interesting but somewhat unfinished. The ending seemed abrupt and too much was left unexplained. I was inclined to agree with Simon from Savidge Reads (do visit his blog, he is a very prolific reader and reviewer with many great posts and recommendations) – that it was ‘a fun romp’ and a ‘brilliantly bonkers’ story, but not much more. I thought about this beautiful, small hardback as a mere stocking filler published in early December to attract Murakami’s fans and their friends and family. But despite that first impression, I could not stop thinking about it.
And then, I remembered what a friend who lived in Japan for a while told me once about Japanese stories for children: apparently, unlike our Western, Disneyfied stories, they tend to avoid clean cut moral resolutions. Reality is rarely divided into straightforward – black and white, good or bad – binaries; it is that messy and confusing middle ground that we most often encounter in life and Japanese stories for young readers don’t shy from exploring it (that is what my friend told me at least, note to myself ‘research this topic at some point’).
Having that in mind I re-read The Strange Library and discovered another layer of meaning. I’m pretty sure I could write an academic paper on it, but don’t worry, I won’t, at least not here. When reading The Strange Library for the second time I noticed in it many themes Murakami usually explores in his adult fiction:
- familiar and friendly turning sinister
- danger of being too humble and amiable – ‘I’m not very good at giving anyone a clear no,’ admits the protagonist and that’s when his troubles begin
- sense of loss and alienation
- blurring of the boundaries between good and evil
The story is short, fast paced, made entertaining through added illustrations, yet it manages to touch upon these difficult existential problems without becoming nostalgic or sentimental. In leaving some threads of the plot unfinished, unexplained Murakami shows his trust in the intellectual and emotional ability of the young reader to engage with a text that is puzzling, unlear in its meaning and message. He encourages the reader to think about the protagonist of this story, and his adventures, in a way unrestrained by any obvious plot development or a simple moral resolution – the contrivances we so often insist on in the stories for children. After all, in life, things don’t always work out; sometimes we can’t find answers to our questions; pain isn’t always deserved; good intentions can lead us astray etc. When I first read The Strange Library I automatically assumed that, as a story for children, it should unfold linearly, logically, and lead to a happy ending, giving a digestible explanation of every mysterious event and every difficult emotion the protagonist experiences. I was being silly, I was being a Muggle, I forgot that children can think for themselves and don’t need our hand-holding all the time.
Despite its fast pace and unexpected twists of action The Strange Library is at times lyrical. Sometimes it reads almost like Haiku – wise but unobtrusive, leaving the answers to our questions hanging in the air, almost evident yet impossible to grasp fully. This poetic quality of The Strange Library makes up for the brevity of the story – its lyricism allows the reader to stop, breathe and think.
‘I lie here by myself in the dark at two o’clock in the morning and think about that cell in the library basement. About how it feels to be alone, and the depth of the darkness surrounding me. Darkness as pitch black as the night of the new moon.’
I can’t say much more without giving too much away, so I’ll stop here. In my room The Strange Library will be living next to The Little Prince and Tove Jansson’s The Moomin Books – on the shelf where I keep children’s books we never grow out of. I know I will be re-reading it from time to time when I feel lonely, or a bit lost, or need to be reminded that most often than not life is a bit strange.