As is often the case in Murakami's fiction writing, in 1Q84's three volumes he presents a vision of Japan in 1984 that at first glance appears normal, but is gradually revealed to be a place with an undercurrent of mysticism.
It is an element shared with previous works such as his 2002 novel, Kafka on the Shore, which also delved deep into a mystical parallel Japan. It provides the text with a richness and creates an image of Japan that is deeply at odds with the common images and ideas we see in films or newspapers.
However, he more than merely creates mystical worlds and in 1Q84 we find him drawing on events that have defined him as a writer and also defined his country's post-war history. Much of the story centres around the actions and influence of the fictional Sakigake cult. New religious movements and cults, of which Japan has had its fair share, are a recurring theme in Murakami's work.
Murakami's 1997 non-fiction book Underground was a collection of interviews he had conducted with the victims and protagonists of the Tokyo Underground Sarin gas attacks committed by the cult Aum Skinrikyo. His personal research into these cults is something that he has put to use in 1Q84. Coincidentally 1984 was also the year that the group responsible for the attacks was founded.
Indeed the year 1984 is central to the book itself. Not only is it the year in which the story is set, but allusions are made throughout to Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the theme of free will, or lack thereof, is crucial to the plot.
The story follows two main protagonists: Tengo, a maths prodigy and aspiring writer; and Aomame, a solitary assassin. These two seemingly unconnected figures are drawn together both through and against their own free will. The two act almost along parallel lines to each other, gradually converging throughout the course of the story. They both embark on their individual storylines after two apparently benevolent benefactors outline their conspiracy. Tengo and Aomame go on to accept either out of naivety or trust, not knowing that their actions will have drastic consequences.
They become committed to their fate, and as one character says, "It's as if we're in a boat shooting the rapids."
For Tengo and Aomame there is no turning back. Their past lives are irretrievably lost. As a result of the events which unfold before them they are forced to accept a new reality in which, much like in Nineteen Eighty-Four, their history is "being rewritten so often, nobody knows what is true any more".
It is through their own actions that they enter the parallel world of 1Q84.
Tengo becomes embroiled during his rewriting of the mysterious novel Air Chrysalis and Aomame begins to start acting unusually.
The question, then, is just how free are they? Tengo is the author of his own entry into the parallel world, both literally and metaphorically. Elements of Air Chrysalis, the novel he has helped to write, begin to appear before his eyes, and he finds himself trapped and propelled along by events outside his control.
1Q84 is often self-referential, playing around with literary techniques, both in terms of the story itself and also from the perspective of Tengo to move the story along. Murakami puts a novel within a novel, a universe within a universe, as it were, and admittedly it is effective storytelling.
The layout of the chapters also provides an important element to the story. Moving back and forth between Aomame and Tengo, chapter by chapter, as Murakami does gives his book not a sense of disjointedness or confusion, but a feeling of inevitability and urgency that forces the reader to carry on reading.
Though a three-volume novel may seem daunting to some, it is hard not to finish it, so caught up in the story is the reader, propelled along, much like Tengo and Aomame, against their will. 1Q84, then, is undoubtedly a testimony to Murakami as a writer and written proof of the reasons behind his enormous popularity.
1Q84 is published by Vintage, Books 1 and 2, £20, and Book 3, £14.99