Hey. ‘Tis I, your self-appointed Murakami expert, here to offer advice on how to start (or continue) reading him.
Sadly, I haven’t read all of his books, but I have read (in chronological order) Norwegian Wood, 1Q84, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Kafka on the Shore, After the Quake, and Killing Commendatore.
For those who aren’t familiar with Murakami, be warned: his work is very trippy. Also, every single one of his novels has at least one creepy and awful sex scene, but alas, it’s inevitable. Embrace it.
I’m going to give you brief descriptions of each novel before suggesting what order to read them in. I’ll try to give you a sense of the themes/elements of the book rather than the plot because reading Murakami without knowing what the book is about makes the experience 20 times better. Also…many Murakami novels don’t really have a standard “plot,” which you’ll understand once you read him.
- Norwegian Wood
A coming-of-age story about Toru Watanabe, a freshman at a Tokyo college, who struggles to cope with his feelings for a girl whose mental health is swiftly deteriorating in the wake of a mutual friend’s tragic death.
This is a beautiful and tragic love story that explores themes of sexuality, mourning, and death. It’s the most “readable” Murakami, which is why it’s very well-known, but Murakami himself questions its fame since it’s not very representative of his typical style.
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
A man struggles to navigate adulthood after being rejected by his four best childhood friends. Read for themes of friendship, love, and loss, or if you like books that make you introspect quite a bit.
- Killing Commendatore
A painter moves to the former home of one of Japan’s most eminent painters. Weird events start to unfold.
An unnecessarily long yet very readable homage to The Great Gatsby, laden with references to Alice In Wonderland, Don Giovanni, and Bluebeard’s Castle. Slightly more “plotty” than Murakami’s other surrealist works, so I’d say this one bridges the boundary between Murakami’s realist and surrealist works.
Surrealist Novels aka The Good Stuff:
These works all thoroughly explore the subconscious, memories, dreams, and nostalgia.
Love. Intertwining narratives. Parallel realities. Religious cults. Dystopia (in case you couldn’t tell by the title..)
Along with Wind-Up Bird, this is my favorite Murakami. I still can’t get over how good it is…
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Toru Okada searches for a missing cat…and then for his wife.
Lots of World War 2 references in here. Arguably his best (and most complex) work.
(Isn’t the cover gorgeous???)
- Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
“Unclose your mind. You are not a prisoner. You are a bird in fight, searching the skies for dreams.”
Check out the Goodreads summary for a glimpse of how complex this book is.
I’ll be honest—this is my least favorite Murakami. I couldn’t get my head around all the elements at work in this novel, and while I appreciated its allusions to Kafka and Orwell, I struggled to connect emotionally with any of its characters. All the same, lots of Murakami readers think this book is pure genius, so it’s worth a try if you’re interested in exploring the intricacies of the mind/the subconscious.
- Kafka on the Shore
Kafka Tamura runs away from home to escape a prophecy and encounters a cast of very interesting characters who shape his destiny in complex ways…or do they? Read for talking cats, prostitutes who quote Hegel, rainstorms of fish, and a truly stunning blend of magical realism and metaphysics with everyday life.
I read this in a day, more or less. Trust me, it’s really, really good.
As for the order to read him in, I’ll create three “tracks.” Choose the one that fits you best.
Track 1: You want to try reading Murakami and see if you like his works/you’re not too keen on devouring each and every one of his novels
Track 2: You’re willing to read Murakami’s best works/even if you have a not-so-great experience with one book, you’re willing to try another
Track 3: You’re set on becoming the next Murakami aficionado/you’ve read Murakami before, like him, and want to try some of his other works
Norwegian Wood → 1Q84/The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle → Kafka On the Shore
Note: 1Q84 is really long, so you might be better off coming back to it later. If you like Wind-Up Bird, definitely read Kafka On the Shore…but be prepared for a lot of awkward sex.
Norwegian Wood → (if the premise interests you) Hard-Boiled → 1Q84 → The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle → Kafka On the Shore → Killing Commendatore
(Yes, I made a very questionable graphic for this)
Hello, aspiring Murakami expert. I am here for you.
If you haven’t read Norwegian Wood already, start there to familiarize yourself with Murakami. From there, you can try Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki for some familiar themes and a somewhat similar protagonist, or you could skip to Hard-Boiled for something completely different. From there, try 1Q84, but if it’s too hefty and you can’t get into it, try The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
If you’ve read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, you can try reading Killing Commendatore next. There are a lot of similar elements/allusions (e.g. to World War 2). Killing Commendatore is definitely a great bridge between Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because it contains similar themes to both novels. However, after finishing it, I can only see it as a less satisfying, less complex jumble of the best elements of Kafka and Wind-Up Bird. Read it either as a prelude to either novel or not at all.
Hope this helps!