Books: An old flame in the Jazz Bar

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami Harvill pounds 9.99
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This book aches. For a short novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun aches surprisingly intensely. "What I wanted was clear enough," the teenage Hajime confides about his second girlfriend with little bashfulness: "Izumi naked, having sex with me." And Hajime is not long detained by the inchoate ardours of adolescence that Murakami so deftly evokes. A few pages later young Hajime is in Kyoto, magnetically attracted to Izumi's older cousin - another only child - and having "such passionate sex I thought our brains were going to melt". It wasn't love that Hajime sought but the "something absolutely crucial" at the core of their raging lust. Izumi is completely destroyed by the betrayal, and Hajime drifts into a decade of shipwrecked relationships.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is an eloquent treatise on the vertiginous, irrational powers of love and desire. Physical desire can attract without rationale, but love's bloom of sensibility can be lost before we know we are holding its vulnerable beauty to the wind. By the time he is indulging in frenzied sex, Hajime is already aware that he may have lost his opportunity for a soul mate. With hindsight we mourn what was in our grasp, but we can never reach back to the moment of indecision that alters or shatters our lives for ever.

Hajime's first love was Shimamoto. Both were 12 and, unusually for that post-war generation, only children. They held hands and listened to records. Shimamoto was lame and plain, but brave, and smiled often. Twenty-five years later she re-appears in Hajime's successful Jazz Bar, which is bankrolled by his wife's building-tycoon father. It takes only one encounter for Hajime to realise that he has never, in a quarter-century, stopped thinking about Shimamoto, or stopped lamenting his failure to keep seeing her when their school paths had diverged.

Shimamoto at 37 is an elegant refugee from a J G Ballard novel, bruised and opaque. Her unassuming vulnerability, suggested by Murakami in a triumph of internalised, suppressed eroticism, re-infects Hajime. At Shimamoto's insistence, they both fly to north Japan where she scatters the ashes of her only child. He lies feebly to Yukiko his wife, almost hoping that she will discover his deceptions. When is an affair not an affair, Murakami asks, as he delicately builds up a highly charged atmosphere within the contained ritual of a courtship that is not, directly, a wooing; but which is, explicitly, a prelude. Can the intense desire to risk or sacrifice the sum of all that Hajime values - his beloved wife, his daughters, his livelihood - ever repeal the guilt of not overcoming the bashfulness of puberty?

Those who enjoyed Murakami's hugely impressive 1998 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (now released as a Harvill Panther paperback) will welcome more of the author's quirky humour. The chance occurrences that Murakami uses to confound his characters are stylistically reminiscent of Brooklyn's resident coincidentalist, Paul Auster; and like him, he similarly deploys enjoyable set pieces like a gumshoe chase or a drunken lunch with Yukiko's father in his favourite eel restaurant to temper the smouldering heat of Hajime's dilemma.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is a soursweet elegy to the inscrutable consequences of childhood, and Murakami is one of a very few writers (Michael Ondaatje and Ethan Canin come to mind) who possess the gift to make obscure wisdoms palpable in the crucible of their characters' (and so their readers') lives. The heart is resilient, Murakami seems to suggest, but its destiny is loss.