By this point in time, I would imagine that it must be hard for most of you reading this not to have heard of the sensation that is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. For us western fans, it all began with the appearance of the anime, more recently followed by the debut of the manga. However, the actual gestation of the franchise pans out a little differently in its native Japan, tracing back to 2003 and the birth of a series of light novels penned by Nagaru Tanigawa. The first of these novels, which went on to pick up a prestigious award in its homeland, does of course bear the title with which we are all most familiar, and it's this tome which has finally seen itself gain a UK release courtesy of Yen Press.
Given that overt familiarity with all things Haruhi that many of you possess, there probably isn't much need to go over the specifics of the plot, so forgive me for teaching you how to suck proverbial eggs here - Anyhow, the novel's story is told through the eyes of Kyon, a student just about to begin his life at high school in the complete expectation of having a sedate, dull and unspectacular time just like any other everyman. Of course, Kyon reckons without a classmate at his new school named Haruhi Suzumiya, a girl that can generously be described as an oddball with an overwhelming interest in ghosts, aliens and other such paranormal phenomena.
Despite being intrigued by Haruhi's unique personality (in no small part due to holding similar hopes and expectations to hers in his youth), Kyon remains the sceptic throughout, although that (coupled with his idle curiosity) isn't enough to prevent him being dragged into Haruhi's circle courtesy of an after-school club she creates - The "SOS Brigade", an outfit designed to track down all things paranormal or otherwise interesting so that Haruhi can "have fun with them". Before he knows it, Kyon is surrounded by a number of characters that are infinitely more colourful than they first seem, leading to revelations that almost literally turn his entire world upside-down.
Like so many successful series, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya lives and dies by the broad concept that it attempts to convey, and it's the beauty of this concept that is easily this novel's greatest strength. While many of the main characters simply follow well-established trends and clichés, they all come to life effortlessly when combined with the simply fascinating ideas personified by Haruhi herself - While this novel can be read as light entertainment, it you throw yourself into the philosophical questions it poses about the meaning of life and our experience of it then there's a surprising amount of depth layered beneath it. This probably explains the "Marmite effect" that has been seen with the anime, where some viewers have hated the series while others have loved it - At the end of the day, it's all down to your interest (or lack of) in the framework behind the series and its characters, and without any enjoyment of Haruhi's fundamental concept there's little left to prop the rest of it up.
In that sense, this opening novel in Nagaru Tanigawa's series of books is likely to divide opinion just as the anime has - If you loved the anime then reading this book will allow you to see just how marvellously close a translation of this (and subsequent) novels that show was (although this might arguably put you off reading the novel given the stark similarities of the source material), but if you disliked it then there's little chance that this book will curry favour with you.
Personally, I fell in love with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya from the moment the first episode was broadcast, and although this light novel will never recreate that "first time" for a Haruhi die-hard it does stand the test of time well to prove itself as an enjoyable read, as well as a fantastic introduction to anyone new to the franchise - Dare I say, it might even act as a perfect conduit to indoctrinate new recruits into the wonders of anime and manga and the story-telling opportunities they possess. This is helped along admirably by a very sharp and well-rounded English translation, marred only by some occasional moments of over-Americanisation - There's something slightly off-putting about Kyon using the phrases "dude" and "man" too often.
Overall then, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is an accomplished debut for this series of novels upon our shores that does everything that you could hope from it as either a newcomer or seasoned Haruhiist - With another eight novels completed in Japan and ready for translation as well, there should be plenty more where this came from too.