‘Birthday Girl’ by Haruki Murakami


Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami, 2002

The magic trick:

Starting the narrative as a straight third-person narrative before surprising the reader by revealing a first-person framing device

This isn’t my favorite Murakami, I must admit. He creates a sense of wonder and mystery, typical of his work, but doesn’t deliver enough clues to make a significant payoff. I got to the end and thought, Oooh, cool, so what does it mean? What was the wish? Let’s see, it could mean… no, well, it could mean… no, oh, forget it, who cares, what’s for lunch?

Maybe that’s on me, I don’t know. I just don’t think the story is very substantial.

Anyway, the storytelling device is neat. The opening section is told in the third person, situating the reader in a linear course of events that feels realistic. The lens pulls back in the second section to reveal a first-person narrator being told the story from the previous section by the birthday girl in question 10 years later. As I said, I’m not totally sure what new light that casts on the central narrative, but it gives the story a pleasantly disorienting vibe. And that’s quite a trick on Murakami’s part.

The selection:

The old man slid the cork from the bottle and dribbled a little wine into his glass for her. Then he took an ordinary drinking glass from a glass-doored cabinet and poured some wine for himself.

“Happy birthday,” he said. “May you live a rich and fruitful life, and may there be nothing to cast dark shadows on it.”

They clinked glasses.

May there be nothing to cast dark shadows on it: she silently repeated his remark to herself. Why had he chosen such unusual words for her birthday toast?

“Your twentieth birthday comes only once in a lifetime, miss. It’s an irreplaceable day.”

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