Norwegian Wood is the kind of book which stays with you for a long time after reading. It is not only the moving story and characters, but Haruki Murakami’s particular style of writing which takes root inside of you.
Another author who has been on my reading list for a long time, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is perhaps most famous for his magic realism works. I decided to start with his more realistic Norwegian Wood…
Norwegian Wood is the bildungsroman tale of Toru Watanabe. We meet Watanabe in his thirties when a song played by chance, The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, transports him back to his youth in 1960s Japan and especially his first love Naoko. Watanabe remembers with clarity and slowness, a particular day in autumn walking with Naoko through a meadow.
What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?10
From then on the narrative focuses on 18-20 year old Watanabe during his university years, where he rencounters Naoko, the girlfriend of his childhood friend Kizuki who committed suicide. Watanabe falls in love with Naoko however their relationship is complicated by her depression and another woman named Midori who bulldozes into Watanabe’s life.
Norwegian Wood is a quietly powerful novel. Murakami deals with events of magnitude; there are student rebellions, suicides, unfulfilled love, mental health issues and class struggles. Still, sorrow is interweaved seamlessly with other joyous moments in the narrative. Watanabe’s daily life is ordinary in many aspects. He has a part-time job at a record shop, drinks often, parties with his womanising friend Nagasawa and has an apathy towards school and his future generally. He forms friendships with eccentric characters such as his roommate “Storm Trooper” and Midori which adds absurdity and lightness to the novel.
The novel revolves around death but also love, sex and laughter. Sex in particular is something which destroys and heals the characters.
I think this is the beauty of Norwegian Wood; it emphasises that death is only a part of life and life is made up of many, many little moments. These moments inevitably become memories whose significance only reveals itself with time. For Watanabe and his friends it is about learning not to be overwhelmed by grief.
Then there is Murakami’s use of language, which has an understated yet incredibly poignant quality. Murakami does not shy away from graphic descriptions of everything from sexual encounters to the depths of individual loneliness which gives an honesty to the narrative. Equally, language is delicate and finely tuned to the complexity of human emotions.
The memories would slam against me like the waves of an incoming tide, sweeping my body along to some strange new place- a place where I lived with the dead. There Naoko lived, and I could hold her in my arms. Death in that place was not a decisive element that brought life to an end.360
Murakami is a master at lines which leave you feeling winded. One such moment comes when Hatsumi, the serene girlfriend of Nagasawa, is revealed to have, “slashed her wrists with a razor blade.” (278). These sudden suicide revelations occur with shocking frequency. It is only after that you wonder whether the seeds for the tragedy had been sown before.
Loss in this book is as certain as the changing seasons and Murakami approaches mental health with a subtle sense of feeling. Naoko for instance is described as a physically beautiful young woman whose mind is plagued by grief and sadness.
Why did such a beautiful body have to be so ill?325
Similarly, Kizuki had been an outwardly charming young man who unexpectedly killed himself. We are also told that Naoko’s studious older sister had committed suicide. Watanabe notes later in the novel that while Hatsumi is not the most beautiful girl, she has an innate quality which captivates him.
Norwegian Wood might be a realistic novel but not everything is as it seems, external beauty rarely mirrors the internal state of the characters.
Another special aspect of Murakami’s writing is his ability to delicately flesh out each character, major and minor. From Watanabe and Naoko to more background figures such as Hatsumi or Midori’s ill father, the narrative finds time and attention for each of them, even if only a couple of lines.
…I thought about Midori’s father. There was one man who had probably never thought about starting Spanish lessons on TV. He had probably never thought about the difference between hard work and manual labour, either. He was probably too busy to think about such things- busy with work, and busy bringing up a daughter who had run away to Fukishima.267
Because of this attention to each character’s backstory, it feels that this is the coming-of-age not only of Watanabe but of all characters.
As we follow Watanabe through his adolescence, the passing of time inevitably plays an important role in the narrative. Birthdays are difficult for Watanabe and Naoko as they solidify the growing distance between themselves and their friend Kizuki. There are also characters with indiscernible ages such as Reiko (Naoko’s roommate) who seems much younger than she is.
Haruki shows how experience is what transforms characters, rather than the physical movement of time.
Shut in behind my curtains, I felt a violent loathing for spring. I hated what the spring had in store for me; I hated the dull, throbbing ache it aroused inside me. I had never hated anything in my life with such intensity.325
Norwegian Wood is startlingly clear, honest and riddled with mystery all at once. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am excited to read more of Murakami’s works.