As I sit here listening to Rubber Soul by The Beatles, the album which contains the very song Murakami named this novel after, I find myself struggling to know where to start with this review. Norwegian Wood is the first Murakami work I’ve read, after gathering the general opinion that it’s the best starting place for Murakami newcomers, despite being quite different in style to some of his other books, and I must say that already it’s left quite an impression on me, and a desire to keep exploring his writing.
First published in 1987, though not published in English in most of the world until 2000 (when it was translated by Jay Rubin), the novel is from the perspective of 37 year old Toru Watanabe, who upon hearing the song Norwegian Wood begins to reminisce about his college days in the late 1960s in Tokyo. The story is about love and loss and sexuality, as we see Toru torn between Naoko, his first love who is deeply emotionally unstable, and the outgoing, quirky classmate Midori, for whom he develops feelings as the story progresses. He is bound to each for various reasons, Naoko in particular as she was the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who we find out early on died at the age of 17. All of this is set against a vague backdrop of civil unrest, as students strike in attempts to start a revolution, although their quick back-down suggests nothing more than mere hypocrisy and no real desire to change anything.
What I love about this story is how developed the characters are, and how this depth is revealed. Out of the book’s eleven chapters, one chapter in particular covers about a quarter of the story, as Toru visits Naoko in a mountain sanatorium away from society. There he discovers the full story of her past, and why she is so fragile, while also meeting Reiko, a talented musician in her late thirties who’s mental illness caused the destruction of her career and marriage. This chapter could have been so slow, so boring, so overdone, but it’s not – rather it’s quite perfect, and by far the most memorable chapter of the whole novel. And when Toru first meets Midori, it’s hard to make an assessment of her, but as time goes on and she reveals herself, I found myself taking her side each time her and Toru clash about something.
One of my biggest concerns when I started reading this was the fact that it was a coming of age novel – other novels of this nature have often disappointed me (and I think are usually overrated). But the themes of adolescent love and loss are not forced in this story, and they are instead entirely believable. It balances out the high points with the low points of such times in one’s life, and as a reader it is easy to feel part of the emotional roller coaster Toru himself goes through. The awkwardness of the sex scenes is described just enough to convey that naivety perfectly, yet they are still heightened with that same rush of adrenaline one would expect. I particularly liked the fact that amongst the 1960s ideology of sex and free love, when this is explored in the novel through one night stands it is met with a feeling of emptiness and self-disdain afterwards, rather than being praised or brushed aside as just part of the social conventions. There’s an honesty, particularly with regard to adolescent sexuality, that fills these pages yet is so often missing from novels of this kind.
Lastly, we come to the language. Oh, the beautiful language – Murakami really is an exquisite, masterful writer, there is no doubt about that. Even if the story was rubbish, the writing is so powerful you would keep turning the pages anyway. He evokes the most intense feelings with such ease, and often with simplicity, yet can slow down to a meditative pace when the story requires it without becoming boring in the process. I was magnetised to this book for so many reasons, but the ultimate aspect that kept drawing me back was the way Murakami told this story, bringing a beauty to what, at many points, is a very tragic tale.
I feel like I’ve barely began to explore my feelings about this novel, but after several days this is the most organised attempt I can muster at revealing just how much I loved Norwegian Wood. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s inspiring, and if you haven’t read it you are simply missing out on a modern masterpiece of storytelling. It appears I’ve started my 2013 reading on a very strong note indeed.
Have you read Norwegian Wood? If so, what were your thoughts on it? Have you read any other works by Murakami?