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The Love We Share Without Knowing: A Novel Paperback – November 25, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Barzak's accomplished novel-in-stories dwells on people dealing with life's sorrows through somewhat tenuous connections. Set in Japan, the narratives focus on protagonists from the country and travelers in search of a new life, as in Realer Than You, in which 16-year-old Elijah Fulton longs for his native America while struggling to fit into his new surroundings outside of Tokyo. The Suicide Club is made up of four young adults on the fringe of Japanese society attempting to make sense of their lives, while Sleeping Beauties concerns, albeit sappily, an American teacher and his Japanese lover; the narrator loses his identity through total immersion in his lover's life, yet it's the slow return to self that is even more devastating. If You Can Read This You're Too Close centers on a disillusioned, selfish young man whose life is changed after a blind man sees him. Barzak's perceptive writing evinces the fragile and overwhelming desire for meaning and love. (Nov.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Have we unfairly placed this novel in the SF section? That's where Barzak and his fans come from, but this story will appeal to those who normally don't touch the genre. As far as classification difficulties go, many critics felt it was a stretch to call The Love We Share Without Knowing a novel rather than a short story collection. But few held this against Barzak, and it was clear that every reviewer fell in love with at least one story from the book. Critics also appreciated Barzak's light fantastic touch; they hesitated to even call it "magical realism," since events that seem to have supernatural elements to one character in the book may seem completely pedestrian to another. As several observers pointed out, this is a particularly apt style for the depiction of Japan, a simultaneously traditional and modern country. It also suits the book's young characters, who are caught between a longing for the fantasy of childhood and the independence of adulthood.
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Some of the stronger points are the characters of Kazuko, who forms a suicide pact with strangers similarly undisposed to go on living; Nobuo, a self-involved musician whose life changes when he is seen by a blind man on the subway and Elijah, an American teenage expat living in Japan where his father works. Unfortunately, the book didn't focus enough on them and the other stories aren't terribly engaging.
For example, "Sleeping Beauties" is a bit treacly and I wasn't convinced about the credibility of the affair that Dan had. Unfortunately, this character's story covers two additional sections, "In Between Dreams" and "Where I Come From." The quality of these sections is highlighted by the fact that there is a character actually called "Ai", or "Love." That is an actual name in Japan but using that name in this context is one of those cases where you can get away with in real life what you can't do in fiction. Likewise, the relationship in "Where I Come From" between Dan and his mother fails because the mother is such a two-dimensional ugly American.
There is a continuum of contact between Elijah, Kazuko and Midori that would have made the nucleus of a strong novel. This would have covered much of what the book is trying to work with, both the difficulties of the expat experience and Japanese characters who are misfits in their own right (sort of an internal outsider) and the shadows of the dead, which is a recurring theme in the book.
Unfortunately, there isn't enough focus on these stronger elements and the space taken up by the less engaging sections take much of the steam out of the book.
This is a luminous, wise book exploring the quest for connection. The characters seek to span the divide between East and West, native and foreigner, parent and child, lover and lover, stranger and stranger, friend and friend, past and present, real and fantastical, living and dead. Most of them end up frustrated in their primary connections without realizing that they have made some critical lateral side connection, that they have figured radically in some stranger's life, that they have contributed some important lesson or become some important symbol in someone else's life, possibly without knowing it, all of us producing these unintended connections until we form one great and invisible net of humanity. The gorgeous, lilting, deeply humanistic title gracefully sums it all up.
I could go on praising the book for its technical achievements -- the beautifully invisible choreography of the plots, the elegant intersecting architecture of its construction, etc., but I think that the best thing I can say is that after I finished the book, I missed the characters. All of them. Even the ones that had made bad decisions. I missed them because the book had helped me make those invisible connections to their humanity. The book reads like a less wacky, more serious, better crafted, more meaningful, and better curated version of a Murakami novel. Unlike a lot of Murakami's writing, it actually succeeds at conveying a sense of a real connection humming between this world and some other world floating above or below or through it. This is the book that I had wanted 1Q84 to be.
But with these simple categorizations, we miss, well, we miss a lot. Christopher Barzak, has written two novels that defy these kinds of easy genre-based descriptions. The most recent, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is particularly difficult to pin down. This is its strength.
If you're looking for a typical love story: boy meets girl, is confronted with a significant obstacle to her affections, overcomes obstacle, love wins in the end, then this is not the book for you (you want something by Nicholas Sparks). Instead Barzak's novel doesn't provide us with easy or even any answers about love. We get questions in a world where the dead and living hold company together and where people drift between these two worlds in dreams and even in the guise of a fox. Love becomes dark and grasping, lonely and desperate, and it refuses to be silenced by death. And yet the darkness doesn't exist just for darkness's sake but rather to make room for the light because in the midst of the lonliness and death we come to realize what is at the heart of the novel's overlapping stories. The ghosts are supernatural manifestations of a truth that is presented as a hunch...that we leave in others' lives our traces, our love, in more ways than we will ever fully realize.