Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
One of my favorite types of stories is when a personal trauma is situated within the context of a national or otherwise historical trauma. This is what I thought I would be getting with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but ultimately a meaningful connection between the past and present was missing. While this was an interesting novel, I felt it could have been a profound one if it had come together more. It is obvious that Noburu Wataya is somehow connected to the events of WWII and carries the sickness and violence of that period into the novel’s present, but this is frustratingly underexplored; it seems the main concept here was that this particular level of violence goes beyond human nature and is something that gets carried into the next generation, but for me, this is an unsatisfactory conclusion.
And if we are to believe that the women in Toru Okada’s life, many of whom are “defiled” by Wataya, are to represent the change Japan went through as a result of WWII, then I have another problem, which is related to what I felt was an underlying and somewhat subtle sexism in the novel: the women are all depicted as seductresses and described almost exclusively in terms of their attractiveness, sexuality, and fundamental brokenness, with Kumiko in need of rescue. To add onto it a tired trope of the nation represented by a woman’s body is more than annoying.
Instead of being about the rippling effect of historical trauma and violence, I think the connecting thread in this novel is more about the fragmentation of the self, the ways we are multiple “selves” contained in one body, and how in moments of trauma we can even dissociate from our own bodies or sense of self. The parts where the novel explored this idea through the stories of the fascinating characters other than Toru Okada were some of the best in the novel. The stories of Nutmeg Akasaka and Lt. Mamiya in particular were my favorite parts of the novel, and to a lesser extent, the stories of Creta and Malta Kano. (Unlike most readers, I did not love May Kasahara, who was unconvincing to me as a character.)
But the most fascinating threads were dropped by the end of the novel, and ultimately it felt like a mishmash of interesting short stories instead of a novel. For me, this simply did not come together as a novel. When one of the main themes is fragmentation, I am willing to accept the possibility that the overall lack of connection is deliberate, but I still can’t shake the sense that this could have been a more beautiful, moving, and profound book than I found it to be. If this review is confusing, it’s because I’m still working out my thoughts on this one. There is certainly enough interesting stuff in it to recommend it, and I did enjoy reading it.