review by Gabriel
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.