This interesting novel has many strengths, but it seems less than the sum of its parts. It reminds me strongly of ‘Norwegian Wood’, devoured years ago. Since then, I have read several books by this author who manages to keep a balance between being popular and being artistic.
However, in this novel there seems to be a sadness and a violence which show that the years of marathons and writing have exacted a certain toll on Murakami. The hero is an engineer, involved in the maintenance of the Japanese railway network. He has been wrongly accused of a serious crime and is stuck in the past. Outwardly successful, the diffident man does seem to be a trainspotter with an affection for music. He is brave, but his bravery is undermined by terrible dreams and feelings of guilt. He is appreciative of women, but he is too interested in what they look like. He cannot comprehend why his former friends did not stick with him and it doesn’t seem to occur to him that maybe they were not so special in the first instance.
In short, Tazaki is a bit like Harry Angstrom. However, John Updike’s character was more appealing, more interesting, more at ease with himself, guiltier, and less of a victim. The Murakami novel has the weakness of its main character; it attracts considerable sympathy without attracting great admiration.There is something of the self-help book about this piece of creative writing. Its focus on the individual is combined with quite an uncritical attitude towards wider society. All its impressive techniques cannot compensate for this unfortunate limitation. When the reader is taken to Scandinavia, which seems not to be to the taste of the main character, it is hard not to think about the Nobel Prize. If Murakami had won it by now, would his work be the same?
This novel is a valiant attempt to make decades of gossip, poetry, politics, and literary secrets seem of absorbing interest. The sentences are constructed with care, and many attempts are made at humour. Conflict between the characters is created and countless social engagements are detailed.
However, the work fails to attain the heights reached by ‘The Line of Beauty.’ It lacks the political bite of that sharper piece of fiction. The numerous poetic references in this novel are no substitute for the satire of its predecessor. Tennyson is not a poet who has worn particularly well since the arrival of modernism. Hollinghurst drags the great man in at the start and at the end, but this does neither of them many favours. The lack of engagement with ordinary people in ‘The Stranger’s Child’ is not compensated for by an impressive familiarity with verse. The reference to Trollope in ‘The Line of Beauty’ has more political resonance than the reference to Brooke in ‘The Stranger’s Child.’
Furthermore, the depictions of women in ‘The Stranger’s Child’ are not particularly impressive. They lack the depth of some of the other characters- perhaps there is something slightly misogynistic and patriarchal behind the lines of this odd and excessively English book. Nevertheless, there are many comforts provided to the reader along the long journey. It is a novel that can be enjoyed against one’s better judgement- a dubious pleasure in dubious times.
Some critics like John Lehmann have been somewhat harsh about Woolf’s ‘Three Guineas.’ He has described it as mistaken and suggested that it was not one of her better pieces of writing. Indeed, Lehmann has contended that having more women in positions of influence would not lead to a more peaceful world. This questionable statement was presented without evidence- during the 1970s, he viewed it as a matter of fact.
Although ‘Three Guineas’ is not without its difficulties, its powerful attack on fascism and patriarchy cannot be easily dismissed. It may be slightly uneven, it could be accused of being slightly deficient in structure and it might rely on psychological theory which is a little dated, but it must be appreciated as a text of its time. While it might have focused a little too much on the bourgeois professions and while it underestimated the strength of imperialism, it was a passionate intervention that was imaginative, bold and often sharp. In the grim 1930s, writing about politics was far from easy as the international scene was extremely bleak.
When war, nationalism and sexism are still very much on the international agenda, ‘Three Guineas’ remains relevant. This is because Woolf had dared to speak out against oppressive structures of exclusion. She had tried to delve into why individuals feel superior to one another. Moreover, she had exposed some of the hypocrisies which reflect underlying social problems. The dismissive complacency of Lehmann only underlines the validity of what Woolf was hoping to achieve.