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.