Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

I meant to read Murakami for ages and ages, so I finally got started with this novel that propelled the Japanese writer into literary superstardom.

From what I gathered, Norwegian Wood is by far Murakami’s most straightforward novel and therefore sounded like a good place to start for a newcomer. You could in fact sum it up as a nostalgic coming-of-age romance about a young man who suffers a misfortune of being in love with two women at the same time. However it would be a gross injustice to describe the book that deals with heavy topics like mental health, grief and death as a mere love triangle, as it is much more ambitious than that.

I wasn’t sure if the title had anything to do with a famous ballad by the Fab Four, but the book establishes the connection right away, when its narrator, thirty-seven year-old Toru Watanabe, hears an orchestral cover of Norwegian Wood at the Hamburg airport. The Beatles song fills him with memories of his years at college in Tokyo in the late 1960s, and moves him to recount his doomed love for a beautiful but troubled girl, Naoko.

Toru is a precocious young student, a preternaturally serious deep thinker with a love for classic writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Though his early times at the college are lonely, the chapters detailing his life on the campus and his quirky roommate (nicknamed Stormtrooper) are genuinely funny. One day, a chance encounter reunites Toru with Naoko, girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki who committed suicide a couple of years previously. The trauma of this event made Toru move to Tokyo for studies, and through their shared grief and confusion, he and Naoko fall into a habit of long Sunday walks together.

From the moment she’s introduced, there’s something ghostly and intangible about Naoko; early on Toru (and the reader) have little idea of just how deeply her psychological issues run. Ultimately, they lead to Naoko retreating from the outside world into an unconventional, isolated treatment facility, while Toru remains hopeful about her recovery and shows his love and support with a visit and regular letters. Meanwhile, Toru and Naoko’s fragile relationship is complicated when he befriends a fellow student named Midori. She’s a young woman from a working class background who is pretty much a polar opposite of Naoko: fun, dynamic, provocative and mouthy, damaged in her own way but full of life and emotionally open. Torn between what he sees as his duty to Naoko and his growing connection with Midori, Toru wonders if he can hope for more than being stuck in disconnected limbo, caring for a girl who might be damaged beyond repair and never love him back.

This is a dark, slow-paced novel, with a heavy undertone of melancholy that permeates the entire book and lingers on despite the glimpses of optimism at the conclusion. There’s little real plot, with many chapters taking the reader deeper and deeper into the troubled minds of its characters; pretty much everyone in Toru’s life at this formative stage has some deep personal issues and battles. There’s a liberal sprinkling of sex, Beatles classics, and maybe one suicide too many; though this topic is generally explored in a careful and sensitive way, there’s one side character death that feels like it was included for shock value more than anything else.

I loved the book mostly for Murakami’s eccentric, beautiful writing. At some point Toru describes The Great Gatsby, one of his all-time favourites, as a book where not a single page is boring. I could say the same about this novel, as Murakami finds non-stale, unexpected and quirky ways to describe people, their moods and emotions, nature and places that always surprise you and keep you on your toes. Admittedly, some of the character dialogue can sound awfully stilted, unnatural and nothing like young people would actually say in real life, but I could accept it as a part of the whole dreamlike, otherworldly package. I just love writers who are so clearly in full command of language and its possibilities.

In short, this book had me so impressed I instantly borrowed more Murakami novels from my sister, and I really look forward to exploring his other works that are more surreal and lean into the magical realism.

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