Norwegian Wood – by Haruki Murakami

review by Gabriel

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood is a novel about youth, love, and death, and the pain that comes from all three.  It’s unusual amongst Murakami’s work in that it is firmly grounded in reality, absent of his signature style of magic realism.  Nonetheless, the author is still instantly recognisable due to his distinctive first person narration and addictive readability.

Set in Tokyo in the 1960s, the story focuses on Toru Watanabe, a university student haunted by the suicide of his best friend, Kizuki, and dealing with the angst and ennui of late adolescents.  After a chance encounter on a train, Toru reignites his friendship with Naoko, Kizuki’s high school girlfriend.  Toru is indifferent to his studies and his future; the only thing he cares about is Naoko.  As their relationship deepens, it becomes apparent that Naoko is spiralling into depression.  When the two are separated, Toru loses himself in the repetition of his daily life and nights of casual sex, sustained by the hope that Naoko will recover.  But his life becomes more complicated when he meets the spirited Midori.

 The novel does not present a nostalgic picture of carefree adolescents in the swinging sixties.  Instead, it captures the confusion, egoism and melodrama of youth.  Each character suffers from an absence or loss that defines their lives.  They are frequently foolish or obnoxious, yet Murakami manages to make them likable through his sensitive depiction of their mindset – having the feelings and freedom of an adult, untempered by experience.  Naoko, in particular, is a tragically familiar character, with her dangerous combination of perfectionism, self-consciousness and hopelessness.

Norwegian Wood is a tragedy.  The character’s flaws and fates are apparent to the reader, and the conclusion inevitable.  Like all great tragedies, it draws you in despite the certain outcome.  It’s a testament to Murakami’s skill as a writer that he can create such a sad story and address serious themes while maintaining a compelling narrative.  I read the last hundred pages late into the night, without moving, hoping that events would not unfold as foreshadowed, sharing the character’s heartbreak when they did.  Which I hope is enough of a recommendation for anyone, really.


5 Responses to Norwegian Wood – by Haruki Murakami

  1. Sarah says:

    Hi Gabriel. I wrote a comment here a week or so ago, but it seems to have got lost somewhere along the way. I haven’t the foggiest recollection of the content of what I wrote, but I will give it one more go…

    This is the only Murakami I have read, so I was interested to learn that it isn’t representative of his work in general. Although I had previously heard rumours of talking cats, which are largely absent in Norwegian Wood. I am now looking forward to encountering magical realism, Murakami style.

    When I read this book I was sure it was good, but was unable to justify this belief. I think you pinpoint two crucial elements; the ability to make flawed characters sympathetic, and maintaining the reader’s need to pursue the story regardless of the known outcome.

    I hadn’t really considered the derivation of Naoko, but now that you mention it, it would be easy to equate with, and find an insight into, the brilliant but tragically short-lived nature sometimes associated with creative genius.

    I wondered which other of Murakami’s novels you have read, and if you have read any other Japanese writers?

    • Gabriel says:

      Hi Sarah, thanks for stopping by again. I’m not sure what happened to your last comment, I definately would have approved it if I’d seen it.
      Yep, if you read some more Murakami, you can expect some talking cats, subterranean demons, supernatural sheep… it’s all good. He’s probably my most read author. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Kafka on the Shore are probably my favourite. I also enjoyed Dance Dance Dance, The Wild Sheep Chase and his non-fiction book on the Tokyo Saris gas attacks, Underground. The only book of his that I thought was a bit average, but by no means bad, was Sputnik Sweetheart.
      Actually, I read quite a few Japanese books because I lived in Japan for a while and my wife is Japanese. I’ve read some of Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, Natsumi Soseki and Kobo Abe, and loved all of them, but especially Kawabata and Mishima. You might be interested to know Murakami is considered to write in a very western way, and I can see how he’s different from other Japanese authors that I’ve read, although I’m not sure I would be able to express in what way. Maybe he’s more plot driven.

  2. […] of the Border, West of the Sun has the same basic plot as another of Murakami’s novels, Norwegian Wood – a protagonist whose life is in turmoil because he is unable to forget his first love.  […]

  3. […] Matt (A guy’s moleskine notebook) Bookie Mee (pre-blogging days short review) Stu (Winston’s Dad) Lucybird’s Book Blog Inverarity is not a Scottish Village Astrid paramita short review who finish the book same day as I am. Writer on Writers […]

  4. […] Dance Dance was published after Norwegian Wood, which earned Murakami such unwanted fame in Japan that he fled the country.  While it is a sequel […]

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