Were anyone to find themselves turned off by Murakami's penchant for the fantastic, this book provides an alternative. It is primarily a character study; there are no "big questions" in play, no ponderings of existential mysteries. It is a personal tale.
Tsukuru Tazaki is one of a circle of five very close friends in high school. They even remain close even as their lives begin to separate when they graduate. They share experiences of growing up and early adulthood and are in fact very deeply connected to each other in a way only young people can be. Then one day, without warning or explanation, Tazaki is ostracized. Tazaki's self-image is already one of being nothing special -- colorless -- so this rejection sends him into a depressive spiral that pushes him toward suicide. In time, he survives this episode, but remains firmly entrenched in his idea of himself as an afterthought in the world. He socializes little, attempts nothing exceptional, and is more or less resigned to a humbly solemn existence. Throughout it all, he remains haunted by the treatment he received from the friends who meant so much to him years ago.
He begins a relationship with a woman who encourages him to contact his former friends to resolve the question once and for all. One by one he reconnects with his old circle, eventually understanding the events that so traumatised him. In the course of this journey he is also surprised to find that his self-image is not the image of him others carry. In the end, he inches towards a more positive and hopeful view of life.
And that's it, in a nutshell. Should you read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage? Yes, probably. As I said this is a restrained, intimate story. Those looking for the high drama and magic realism Murakami is known for might find it uninteresting. I did not. A good, relatable character study is a rare thing -- especially one that doesn't get bogged down in symbolism or social meaning. In some ways it is more reminiscent of short stories than a novel in that it is about sudden upheavals to the status quo. It will not be Haruki Murakami's most renown work, but those who read it will be touched.