These six stories, all loosely connected to the disastrous 1995 earthquake in Kobe, are Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Norwegian Wood) at his best. The writer, who returned to live in Japan after the Kobe earthquake, measures his country's suffering and finds reassurance in the inevitability that love will surmount tragedy, mustering his casually elegant prose and keen sense of the absurd in the service of healing. In "Honey Pie," Junpei, a gentle, caring man, loses his would-be sweetheart, Sayoko, when his aggressive best friend, Takatsuki, marries her. They have a child, Sala. He remains close friends with them and becomes even closer after they divorce, but still cannot bring himself to declare his love for Sayoko. Sala is traumatized by the quake and Junpei concocts a wonderful allegorical tale to ease her hurt and give himself the courage to reveal his love for Sayoko. In "UFO in Kushiro" the horrors of the quake inspire a woman to leave her perfectly respectable and loving husband, Komura, because "you have nothing inside you that you can give me." Komura then has a surreal experience that more or less confirms his wife's assessment. The theme of nothingness is revisited in the powerful "Thailand," in which a female doctor who is on vacation in Thailand and very bitter after a divorce, encounters a mysterious old woman who tells her "There is a stone inside your body.... You must get rid of the stone. Otherwise, after you die and are cremated, only the stone will remain." The remaining stories are of equal quality, the characters fully developed and memorable. Murakami has created a series of small masterpieces. (Aug. 20)
Forecast:The thematic urgency of this collection should give readers an extra reason to pick it up; Murakami's track record will do the rest.