Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: Review

NorwegianwoodCherry  blossom season comes and goes. Kyoto lies under a blanket of snow. Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood may range across the seasons but the heart of its protagonist Toru Watanabe is forever locked in winter.

As his plane lands in Berlin a snatch of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood comes wafting over the aircraft sound system. It awakens his memory of the time when more than twenty years earlier he had fallen in love with a beautiful, though deeply-troubled, fellow student Naoko. The last occasion on which he saw her was when they walked together in a frozen landscape near a remote sanitorium where she was undergoing therapy. Soon after she killed herself in those snow-clad woods.

Time has blurred his memory of that scene and the person he once was. But every so often, just as it does on that flight, it returns.

Each time it appears it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. Wake up, it says, I’m still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I’m still here. The kicking never hurts me. There’s no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes with each kick.

Toru relives for us the days of his younger self as a student in Tokyo in 1969. This is not a novel about the halcyon days of young love but a painful, troubled tale of a coming of age. Or as Toru puts it: “In the midst of life, everything revolved around death.”

We learn that Naoko’s death was not the only tragedy Toru experienced as a young man. He’d once had a close bond with two other students  and his girlfriend Naoko. But when Kuzuki inexplicably committed suicide,  the two survivors were thrown closer together and the inevitable happened, Toru fell in love with Naoko.  She’s a very troubled young woman who though sweet and longing for happiness cannot deal with the strain of life.

While Naoko experiences a breakdown and seeks help at the sanitorium, Toru becomes enamoured with another student. Midori Kobayashi is everything Naoko is not;  vibrant, adventurous, unconventional. A date with Naoko took the form of a long walk through the suburbs of the city; a date with Midori involves clubs, drinks and a visit to a porn cinema. With her Toru may have the chance to achieve what Naoko’s death removed; a chance of real life and love.

Many other authors would, at this point, opt to wrap the novel up with a neat and tidy ending in which the potential lovers either walk off together to find a new life or forever part. Murakami avoids the conventional end. Instead he leads us only part of the way through the frozen landscape of a relationship, giving clues as to a potential ending but leaving us to decide whether ultimately Toru embraces the opportunity of a new life with Midori or continues in his grief and devotion to the unobtainable dead Naoko.

The subtlety of the ending perfectly reflects the delicateness and elusiveness with which Murakami renders this story of young, tragic love. He doesn’t wallow in the emotions but lets us feel Toru’s bewilderment as he approaches the crossroads of his life. Deceptively simple in terms of plot, the writing is so beautifully managed and suffused with symbolism and layers of meaning, the result is surprisingly affecting.

 

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on February 13, 2016, in Book Reviews, Japanese authors, world literature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I used to read a lot of Murakami, but his Wind up Bird Chronicle rather broke me and after that I lost the habit. This sounds a very good one, like the books I liked him for rather than the bloated stuff that I don’t think you’d enjoy.

    So, since I actually do own this you’ve made me a lot likelier to read it, for which thank you.

    In terms of style it doesn’t sound typical (though it is one of his most successful), but it does sound quite a lot like my favourite Murakami – South of the Border, West of the Sun. In that a fortysomething owner of a jazz bar runs into a woman he once loved many years ago, and it opens for him a gulf of memory and thoughts of roads not taken. If you liked this, at risk of sounding like Amazon, I think you might well like that.

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  2. Ugh. I really need to read more of the Murakami I have on my shelf. It’s always so beautiful that I don’t want to run out of it one day, so I’m strangely hoarding it.

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  3. Nice review! I haven’t read this one yet but I definitely plan to get to it someday especially after you have made it sound so beautiful.

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  4. It was my first Murakami and I loved it. I think it’s a great place to start with him because you get a sense of his interest and style before being challenged by his more “out there” works. I love the tone of his work, though I haven’t read him for 3 or four years now.

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  5. I enjoyed your review but I didn’t like Norwegian Wood very much.

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  6. I just stole it form my family home and now your review definitely moved it up my TBR. Sounds like a book for change of seasons, an spring is coming soon (I hope!).

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  7. I have quite a few Murakami in the 746 and have never known where to start with him! Norwegian Wood sounds like a good place.

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    • I was told by a few of his fans that it’s not his typical kind of writing so I do nt honestly know whether this would be a good jumping off point for his work or best read as a one of a kind.

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      • I would still say it is – it has less of the fanciful stuff of many of the later works, but it’s still very Murakami in theme (in ideas of isolation, alienation, of the young and in style things like pop culture references). I think in fact it makes an excellent introduction.

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  8. It’s one of my favourite Murakami novels – perhaps because its more accessible than some of the others. Thanks for the review.

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  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I read this a long time ago as my first Murakami. However nothing else of his I’ve tried has lived up to it, which is a shame. Do you recommend any of his other works strongly?

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  10. One of my all time favourite books 🙂 I enjoyed your review.

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  11. Lovely review. I’m a bit hit-and-miss when it comes to Murakami’s work, but this one turned out to be a winner for me. Thank you for the reminder!

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  12. Murakami is an author I have always rather fought shy of. I think I need to schedule one of his book for a reading group so that I have a purpose behind reading him.

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  13. Lovely review! I did enjoy ‘Norwegian Wood’ but I wish in some ways I’d read it before any of Murakami’s other novels, so rather than seeing it in its own right I felt it was lacking the surrealism I have come to expect from him.

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