Title: Norwegian Wood
Author: Haruki Murakami (Translated by Jay Rubin)
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication Date: September 12, 2000
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4 Stars
Dear fellow Babblers,
This is going to be my first book review in quite a few months, my last being an ARC review of The Museum of Us close to four months ago, back in March. The reason being, I’ve been traveling and going through some serous personal and academic changes and self discovery, resulting in the majority of my energy being directed to myself and away from the book blogging community. I have been back in Los Angeles for a little over a week now and will remain here for the next couple of weeks before I fly across the country to New York in preparation of a masters program that I will be starting in September. I’ve been settling back into a calm, translucent life in my parents’ home, back in my childhood room of tower-high books and stuffed care bears all around me. It’s a luxury to be able to walk up and down my shelves and choose whatever I am in the mood of reading, unlike during my travels that I read whatever I could manage to get my hands on, or whatever was the cheapest and least had the least ridiculous cover.
I returned to the United States in low and glum spirits and I was a bit hopeless as to figuring out a way to cope as I’ve never been a girl good at coping and have always been rather hopeless at hoping. Books have always been my way of momentarily caging my sadness or sorrow which is exactly what I fell back on this time around. With the joy that I could finally for the first time in over a year pick a book off of my own shelf I chose a novel from my favorite contemporary author, Norwegian Wood by the legendary Haruki Murakami, and here is what I thought…
Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.
A poignant story of one college student’s romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.
Norwegian Wood is simple, simple in comparison to Murakami’s other work’s. There are no talking cats, no pink elephants, no crazy erotic fantasies, no magically perverted old men. There are no surrealistic elements and nothing that extends beyond the capacity of the human mind. Everything is as it is: no one is who they are not, nothing is what it is not and no where is what it is not.
The protagonist and narrator of the story, Toru, is an average college student finding himself thrown in the middle of student riots in Tokyo in the 1960s. He has his own typical troubles and enjoying his own typical youthful life. He is dramatic, romantic and pragmatic in his approach to life and it’s situations. He is in love with the girlfriend, Naoko, of his best friend, Kizuki who recently committed suicide. Toru’s life, plans and thoughts all revolve around his love for Naoko, a lovely, delicate and withdrawn woman who suffers from demons greater than herself. Toru and Naoko’s love remains caged and unable to bloom, with the shadow of their best friend’s suicide lingering in every touch, sound and feeling that passes between them.
Naoko’s life is troubled and it never becomes completely transparent the underlying nature of her suffering subconscious. There is more to it than her boyfriend’s suicide but remains blurred and heavy under the webs of her highs and lows. During the narrative period of the story there are only two real scenes that bring the youths’ together. This is at the “hospital” that Naoko is seeking treatment for her unnamed illness. This facility, far and tucked in the woods, brings Toru hours away from his university dorm. Toru comes to visit on two occasions, spending two nights and three days each time with Naoko and her older companion, Reiki. In this solace, tucked away from reality, the three enjoy each other’s company in singing, eating, and telling stories. For the most part throughout the novel, Toru learns and receives news about Naoko’s progress and decline from Reiki, a failed musician with her own set of troubles, who has been in the facility as a patient for over seven years. Much of Toru and Naoko’s exchange occurs in the form of letters, more from Toru than Naoko.
To soothe his aching heart and numb it from his far off longing for Naoko Toru goes off on evening adventures with his friend, Nagasawa, always ending in the arms of a strange girl in a strange bed. After a while however, even this becomes too much trouble for him and his separates himself further and takes comfort in a malt whisky and writing his Sunday letters to Naoko. But then a chirpy, sex-crazed gal walks into Toru’s life, complicating, if not changing his perspective and look towards the future altogether. Unlike Naoko, who Toru can never have in body, only in partial soul, Midori exists in full body, mind and soul. Beginning as a light if not on and off friendship grows as Toru’s Sunday letters to Naoko are complimented by his Sunday afternoons spent in Midori’s company. With her, Toru’s character grows as he realizes that feelings do not remain contained and love cannot exist solely by spirit.
As with his other works Murakami’s prose is rich in colorful description and carries a steady melancholic tone throughout. There are no elaborate or incomprehensible situation; the writing is simple yet fluid, sensual yet distant. There are several erotic scenes, all written with delicate and fine detail, painting a glorious portrait for the curious reader. With suicide being a major theme in the novel there are many powerful passages that are utterly heartbreaking, bringing up questions of love, friendship and the invisible line standing between them.
Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age story unlike any other that I have ever read. Though not as captivating as many other novels that I have read on mental illness, Murakami’s extraordinary writing never fails to draw me in. A bit overly sexual at times this is a tragic story, pulling at the heart strings and wrapping around the mind. Ordinary events – going to school, sleeping around, riding the subway – become beautiful in Murakami’s world. The mundane becomes as exhilarating as passing through a Chagall painting. Intended for a mature audience, Norwegian Wood is a light and pleasurable read that paints a masterpiece of a banal and sad universe.
(Book image credits go to Goodreads)