Toru Watanabe, 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.
This is a very different novel than other publications by Murakami. However, according to the inscription after the ending, it is the one that turned him into a superstar in his native land – so much, that he landed himself into a state of self-exile to escape what is usually reserved for rock stars.
The story is told from the collegiate experiences of Toru Watanabe, a disenfranchised man who is still recovering from the memory of losing his best friend to suicide. He is seeking a degree in drama, but feels no passion for the subject. Much rather he escapes to western literature and western music.
At the age of 17, Toru's friend, Kizuki, took his own life without any warnings. In this wake, Kizuki's death leaves behind Naoko, his girlfriend – stricken by a constant grief as to why her soul mate took his own life. Emotionally fragile, Naoko's own escape is an unidentifiable madness that leaves her sinking into her own whirlpool of self-loathing.
While attending college, Toru meets Midori, a rebellious girl with short hair who acts before she thinks. She takes an instant liking to Toru because of his own brooding nature – calling him weird. Her own escape is a string of lies about her father and misadventures involving porno theaters.
Within these event, Toru meets a diplomacy student – Nagasawa. Though he has a devoted girlfriend, Hatsumi, has has a long history of escaping night after night from his dormitory to sleep with women he meets at clubs for sheer sport. Toru ends up going on several of these sexual sojourns and never truly adapting to Nagasawa's detachment from sex.
And, then there is Reiko: a companion to Naoko while they stay together as roommates at an unusual, yet inviting mental institution. Reiko is an older woman displaying a particular androgyny. She was once married and a pianist before she went mad from what was expected of her: happiness.
The shared motif of this novel is escape. Each person in this small body of fiction took action to escape from what they felt hurt them most. Much of it revolves around love – both the denial of love and the inability to love as one is loved by another. And, in some cases, the ultimate escape is reached and death does become of some of these characters.
Their deaths remind me of when I was in high school – I was a bit of an emotional wreck throughout. Of course, this is all-too-common of us going through that surge of unexplainable (and forgot by those older than us) hormones that, truly, make us want to be loved. As for myself, I feel my case might have been lessened had I been properly diagnosed properly and early with what was keeping me from sleepy – after all, without sleep, we're all fairly on edge. Anyway, I've gotten ahead of myself. Back during my days in high school, there was a poster that was common in many of the counselors' offices. It read "Suicide: a permanent solution to a temporary problem."
When one is in that state of mind and facing what we feel like there is no end to, no such rational exists. The final solution is right there and all too ready to take us who suffer within its forever embrace. Those who escape committed to suicide that was for some real, and for others symbolic. It is not until some certain pains are shared and realized and celebrated that Toru could move on from his friend's death and learn to really trust someone – and, in turn, be there when someone else need, Needs, NEEDS to be loved back.
Sex is another motif that appears a lot within this novel. I felt as though that the translation did not convey properly the emotional aspects of certain (yet very necessary) scenes of coupling. The translation made it seems just as detached as Nagasawa exploits. Nevertheless, it is there: sex as a motivator of love, appreciation, and saying "thank you, thank you, thank you" to someone who has made a life all the more rich before saying goodbye and accepting what must be done. And what must be done is to pick up that phone, dial until she picks up, and say...say what you need to say and what she needs to hear: that you are ready.
At the same time, I want to comment on one of the translator's notes in the end--he mentions that Murakami was extremely disappointed that his readership escalated so drastically with this novel. It is more mainstream than his other writing, but I'm all the more impressed with Murakami for having read it. He moves easily between emotions of innocence, lust, humor, and grief, and with a simple story of glorious language. Having read this book solidifies my previous high regard for Murakami, and guarantees that I'll be reading everything by this author over time.
Strongly recommended for lovers of simple stories, beautiful language, and anyone interested in novels dealing with coming-of-age stories, loss of innocence, and the search for identity. I have no doubt this novel is a classic, however recent it may be.
Norwegian Wood is Murakami’s most popular book and in Japan it elevated him to celebrity status and one can see why. It is beautifully written and touches on many issues that will resonate with it’s readers. Toru’s story is told in the first person and we first meet him on an aeroplane where the Beatle’s song Norwegian Wood sends him into a dream-memory of Naoko the lost love of his student days; it is both poignant and mysterious and we want to know more. Murakami duly obliges by telling the story of the events that happened twenty years ago through the eyes and thoughts of Toru who we soon come to love, despite his almost total involvement with himself. This is the key point about Toru and we are horrified when Nagasawa says this about him:
“We’re a lot alike, though Watanabe and me” said Nagasawa. “Neither of us is interested, essentially, in anything but ourselves. OK, so I’m arrogant and he’s not, but neither of us is able to feel any interest in anything other than what we ourselves think or feel or do. That’s why we can think about things in a way that’s totally divorced from anybody else. That’s what I like about him. The only difference is that he hasn’t realised this about himself, and so he hesitates and feels hurt…………. “Where Watanabe and I are alike is, we don’t give a shit if nobody understands us. That’s what makes us different from everybody else. They’re all worried about whether the people around them understand them, but not me and Watanabe. We just don’t give a shit. Self and others are separate.”
This speech about Toru feels like a bucket of cold water being thrown over you. It is all so true and Murakami’s skill had been to make me feel sympathetic to this thoughtful, sensitive student. Of course when Nagasawa’s girlfriend asks Toru if it is true what Nagasawa says about him, Toru hotly denies it, but it casts him in a new light and perhaps as an unreliable narrator despite his protestations stated in a letter to Reiko; a doctor/friend of Naoko:
“I’m not trying to make excuses for myself, but I do believe that I have lived as sincerely as I know how. I have never lied to anyone, and I have taken care over the years not to hurt other people. And yet I find myself tossed in this labyrinth.”
Yes of course this is a somewhat tragic tale, but Murakami is not interested in dwelling on these aspects too much. He is more interested in the human condition. Would we not all want to be as admirable as Toru see’s himself; yet why does he find himself in this labyrinth. Is it because life is “just like that?”. There are no answers, but Murakami has posed plenty of questions and I found this rather softly spoken book to be thoroughly enchanting. It is also sensitively sexy and does not fail to weave it’s spell throughout it’s length. A four star read.
She showed me her room, isn't it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian wood.
- The Beatles
Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood is a love story: on author’s own confession, “a straight, simple story” quite unlike the type of fiction he is well known for. Murakami claims the novel was a challenge to him, a test of his capability to write a “straight” story; many of his fans see it as a betrayal of what his works had stood for until then. Not having read any of Murakami’s works so far, I had the advantage of approaching it with an unprejudiced mind. And I found that while the story was straight, it was anything but simple.
The novel is one bunch of impressions. The prose is sensual, even voluptuous: descriptions of landscapes and weather are done in long and loving detail. There is very little exploration of inner mental states, other than as broad description of emotions, even though we are listening to only one voice throughout the book. It is rather like stream of consciousness turned outward.
I have been trying to do a traditional review of this book for quite some time now, but have been finding it impossible. So I will give you my impressions of reading the book.
Reading Norwegian Wood (for me) is like sitting on the porch at twilight during a rare break in the rains during the monsoon, watching the golden rays of the dying sun light up the rain-drenched earth, and filling your lungs with the smell of the rain.
Reading Norwegian Wood is like waking up on a winter morning, opening the window and getting hit in the face by an invigorating blast of icy East Wind.
Reading Norwegian Wood is like staying up late, listening to the harmonious cacophony of drums at our local temple festival, inhaling the aroma of the burning lamp wicks and incense.
And then: "PURE HATE. How could you, you self-indulging piece of garbage, how could you write the facilest, ugliest, cruelest happy ending imaginable, the one everyone thinks about and hates themselves for. How could you reduce it to a life/death duality and give more professors more hooks to hang their shit on and destroy the trueness at the core?"
Stage five: "Wait, whoa. I just gained huge insight into myself and the world and love by the way I raged at that flatness. Maybe this guy knows what he's doing after all. And the book's not over yet, and Reiko is coming in to Greek-chorus us back on track . . . ."
Stage six(!) and last: Utter dumbfoundment. I've seen the ambiguous ending,and in this tale it was true and right and shit, dawg, Toru IS just Nick Urfe but magic island igai. But OMG how masterly a last line, shaking everything up in a flash and making it sinister, but with just the right ray of not-hope-but-inconclusiveness. But still sinister."
Crazy good, but nothing can forgive that lynchpin moment I went mad about. But I'll read him again.
There are no tricks here, no mysterious magical forces at play, no spies dressed as cats lurking in the corners. What we do find is a vivid account of the years 1969-1970, it's music (the book is named after the Beatles song which is mentioned several times in the story), it's energy and the upheavals the times brought about, Tokyo-style. It’s a sad story with many insights on relationships, connections and loneliness told in Murakami’s magic style, in his unique voice which bring a tinge of excitement to everything he touches upon. If you’ve heard about Murakami and are curious to discover this phenomenal writer, this should be your first stop.
I enjoyed it thoroughly but do have a special fondness for Murakami’s multilayered and intersecting worlds found in some of his later books which is why I gave it
This is a book where the ups and downs of life happens to the protagonist, and he feels little ability to change the world about him.
I liked the use of symbolism, the use of music in the story, and the occasional touches of humor. The ending was pretty strong, and helped redeem what would otherwise have been a lower rating.
Actually, what I found intriguing is that the narrator is 38, claims he that his memory is slipping away, and then gives this detailed account of his 19th and 20th year. "Even so, my memory has grown increasingly distant, and I have already forgotten any number of things...What if I've forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning to mud?" (10).
Also love and loss....and what is "Normal?" And where the heck did Storm Trooper go that always cleaned out everything? What was he symbolic of? Maybe that as we age we lose the ability to just sweep everything up and keep it spotless and it all begins with the tiniest bit of lost control. At the end we must keep the bits and be careful not to fall in the field well...a well of which no one knows the location but people occasionally vanish into. Storm Trooper?
Toru loses two friends to suicide and finds himself struggling to remain in the real world himself. Just as in his fantasy books Muarkami makes you believe in a world that isn't there; here he leads you down a path that eventually has you believing in how easily one could slip over that fine line between hope and hopelessness, between the will to live and living a life without really being in it.
Most of the characters are well formed and their purpose within the story is clear, but he leaves a few lose ends. Whatever happened to Toru' s roommate Storm Trooper? And why does the story begin in Germany? Why does he say, "Gemany again." There is no later connection to Germany except that one college friend ends up moving there.
Murakami is a master at expressing human passion, weakness, and depth that lies beneath the surface of most people most of the time. This one has an especiallly sweet sadness. It goes deeply into those thoughts we have but never express because in the end, we all know we will lose the ones we love and we have to somehow deal with our sorrow and go on living and try to love again.
I enjoyed the author's direct and engaging style. The prose felt very modern -- of which, in my limited reading so far of Japanese authors, I haven't seen much. I wanted to see Murakami went with it.
Unfortunately, Murakami's modern characters were not very interesting or engaging. In particular, I cared little about the odd musings and romantic forays of Toru, the protagonist student. He struck me as an earnest young guy trying to understand himself and figure out the world and his place in it. This is perfectly fine, as we've all been there ourselves; but such a character falls short of the kind of interesting, engaging persona to anchor a novel.
I expected more insight about Toru, and thought it was going to come. The author introduced us to Toru in intriguing fashion in the book's first few pages: a seemingly established, near middle-aged fellow looking back and wondering about his early adult years. Thus began the long backward drift. Murakami hooked me and made me want to know more. But he never tied things up and brought us back to his starting point. To me, that is ragged thinking and poor writing.
Why, then, the book's apparent viral popularity? Beats me. I suppose readers (especially those who are around the same age as the characters) could be drawn to the story by its accounts of multiple suicides, and enjoy speculating about the motivations which underpinned those extreme decisions. But I am in my mid-50s, not 20s, and have amassed too much life experience to feel sympathy for the nihilistic quandries of the mostly normal-sounding young adults who inhabit this story.
So, have I just described virtually every coming-of-age novel written about college kids growing up in the United States during the last 40 years? Maybe, but in Norwegian Wood, we are actually introduced to Toru Watanabe, a young man living in Tokyo in the late 1960s. Indeed, it is an indication of the author’s deft touch that he has been able to craft his protagonist into something of a universal “Everyman” while still making him very much a product of a Japanese upbringing and cultural heritage. We feel Toru’s angst, conflicts, loneliness, and occasional joys from half a world (and half a century) away, which is a great credit to Murakami’s skill at telling a compelling and relatable story.
This novel has been described elsewhere as “elegiac” and that is a perfect word for it. To be sure, Toru has his share of good times and sex—a lot of sex, in fact—but at its heart Norwegian Wood is a melancholy and somberly tinged look at how he reconciles his life-long devotion to the troubled Naoko with the love and deepening connection he feels for the vivacious Midori. Without giving away too many details of the plot, it is also a tale that forces the reader to consider the effects that mental illness and suicide have on the close friends and family of those so afflicted. Certainly, the matter-of-fact way in which the details of those issues are presented forces us to focus more on the consequences than on the events themselves.
I was quite moved by this novel, which was the first of Murakami’s works that I have read. While it was written in a more naturalist manner than the post-modern style the author is best known for, this is a powerful story that is delivered in a subtle and heartfelt way. The narrative is not perfect—the initial framing device of having a 37 year-old Toru reflect back on his school days was quickly abandoned and there is little development of Toru’s or Naoko’s family life—but it is very effective at capturing the mood and spirit of the times. It is also one that shows us in a most poignant way that growing up is hard, no matter where in the world you live.
Erica Kline, 2003
Murakami's main character was, as usual, very likeable, and Midori was wonderful too but I was still thinking "What was all the fuss about?"