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Quietness of these stories doesn't mean they don't hit home when they need to

Non-fiction: Men Without Women By Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, £16.99

I have something of a love/hate relationship with short stories. Too many mediocre offerings leave me despairing of the genre, but then a collection like Men Without Women comes along and all is forgiven, my faith restored in the recognition of how utterly perfect the medium can be - in the right hands.

Haruki Murakami's are talented indeed, each of the seven stories here (five of which have been previously published, four in The New Yorker and one in Freeman's, while the remaining two - 'An Independent Organ' and 'Men Without Women' - are original compositions for this collection) a gem in and of its own right, but strung together they're a sparkling strand of precious stones, the light refracted from each equally brilliant, but the tones varying subtly.

The collection's central concern is loneliness.

"You are a pastel-colored Persian carpet, and loneliness is a Bordeaux wine stain that won't come out", explains the narrator of the final story, speaking of the myriad 'Men Without Women' - among whom he counts himself.

These figures take on a different guise in each of the tales - a widowed actor, musing on his dead wife's affairs; a lovesick plastic surgeon who starves himself to death after reading a book about the Holocaust; a single man under some form of house arrest, sleeping with his housekeeper; a divorced man who begins life again as a lonely barkeep; Kafka's Gregor Samsa, transformed from insect into man, finding his feet in an unfamiliar world and thrown off them again by sexual desire; and a man whose girlfriends keep committing suicide.

They're more than simply men without women, though; they recognise an impossible gulf between the sexes.

The prose, clear and refined - not to mention seamlessly translated from the original Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen - and the unassuming quietness of these stories doesn't mean they don't hit home with when they need to, whether it's by means of a single arresting sentence, the shock of a completely unanticipated eventuality, or the lingering sense of expectant incompleteness.

Slightly at odds with the realism of the other stories, Murakami's take on Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis should be jarring, but instead it's a rather delightful foray into the surreal.

Lucy Scholes

Belfast Telegraph

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