I’ve long been meaning to read more globally, so when a friend mentioned Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood as one of her favorite books, it seemed like the time was ripe to cross a well-known Japanese author off of my want-to-read list. Or at least, one of his many intriguing titles; Jay Rubin (Murakami’s English translator) states that Norwegian Wood was the book that established Murakami’s “superstardom,” so it seemed as good a place to start as any.
In the novel, thirty-seven year-old Toru Watanabe hears a Beatles song that sends him back in memory to his first two years at college in Tokyo, 1968-1970. In this time, he runs into a girl who shared a close mutual friend with him- a mutual friend who committed suicide a couple of years previously. With this shared grief and confusion between them, Toru and Naoko begin a habit of Sunday walks through the city. An incident on Naoko’s birthday brings the two both closer together and farther apart. In the meantime, he meets another girl from his own classes who slowly invades his life and leaves him wondering whether he can ask for more than to care for a damaged girl who can make him no promises.
“The years nineteen and twenty are a crucial stage in the maturation of character, and if you allow yourself to become warped when you’re that age, it will cause you pain when you’re older.”
Essentially, Norwegian Wood is a romance in which one young man falls into the dilemma of loving two women at the same time. But the novel does so many other things that to dismiss it as a simple story about a love triangle would be an injustice.
This is a book that delves into Japanese culture, evokes a particular moment in time, and perhaps most prominently, focuses on mental health. Though arguably overstuffed with suicides and a mix of sexual content, this novel manages a beautiful and tragic balance of love and grief. Naoko talks about why she thinks their friend ended his life so unexpectedly; she tells Toru a story about her dead older sister; and through Naoko’s letters and Toru’s time with her, the reader steps deeper and deeper into the troubled mind of Naoko herself. The list of complex characters does not end there, however. It seems that every person who finds a place in Toru’s life in these two formative years is battling to overcome some unique personal struggle, and Toru certainly earns his sad place among them.
“No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.”
Murakami’s construction of the novel prevents the central deaths from feeling sensationalized; in the first pages, the reader learns how Toru’s relationship with Naoko will end, making this a powerful story about self-discovery and timeless love rather than a shocking plot. In fact, there is very little plot. Norwegian Wood is a dark, slow, self-contained bildungsroman that will appeal especially to fans of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. My only criticism is that the careful way in which the two deaths that most affect Toru are explored is somewhat undercut by several side characters meeting similar fates. Even Storm Trooper, whose departure from the story is left mysterious, leaves the reader with a nagging worry that only the butt of endless jokes in a book brimming with death and depression can.
If you’re thinking by now that Norwegian Wood sounds like a very sad story, punctuated by tragedy after tragedy, you’re correct. When I had finished the novel, I went back to the opening paragraphs to reread the older Toru’s impression of the Beatles song and found myself moved nearly to tears- a rarity for someone usually so adept at compartmentalizing fiction. But the reason all of this sadness is so effective is that Murakami buoys the reader along with all of the promising emotions of Toru’s first loves; it’s a perfect blend that hurts only after it manages to elevate.
The 1960’s is not generally an era I find myself interested in reading about, but Murakami transports and captivates. The sheer number of Beatles songs mentioned in the text made me happy, the commune-like sanatorium kept me intrigued, and the period-appropriate catchphrases amused.
We have both Murakami and Rubin to thank for beautiful, accessible language, and a story that will surely last many times the length of the few decades it already has.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Admittedly, I went into this book with such strong trust in a recommendation that I didn’t even bother reading the synopsis until after I’d finished the book and the back cover was simply the only text left. I’m so glad that I’ve finally read one of Murakami’s novels, and this one impressed me on such a level that I will certainly be picking up another. I’m thinking The Wind-up Bird Chronicle next (though I don’t know when that might be), but I’m certainly open to other recommendations!
The Literary Elephant