Norwegian Wood – a breathtakingly beautiful masterpiece

Norwegian WoodAs 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.

Haruki MurakamiLastly, 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?

19 thoughts on “Norwegian Wood – a breathtakingly beautiful masterpiece

  1. I recently read Sputnik Sweetheart (my first Murakami) and I couldn’t review it coz I just didn’t know how I felt about it! On the one hand – is his exquisitely sparse prose, on the other his characters that are anything but ‘normal’ and often like Sumire in Sputnik Sweetheart, confused, scary and yet endearing so that you’re never quite sure whether to love them or not! Like you though, he’s an author I want to explore further coz the talent is obvious…maybe Norwegian Wood next?!

    • Yes, there is something intriguing about the contrast between the eloquence of his writing and the somewhat absurdity of his imagination at times. I think Norwegian Wood would be a very good place to go next, as it is a lot more “normal” kind of story in comparison to a lot of his other work (or so I have been told). 🙂

  2. Hmm – looking for my next book right now so I may have a look at this. I have just finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and am in the mood for more lovely writing and meaningful prose.

  3. Yay, you read it! I had trouble trying to figure out how to write about this book as well, but I think you did a great job! You conveyed a lot that I didn’t know how to say, and you said quite a few things I hadn’t really thought of, such as the way sex is portrayed within the cultural setting of the ’60s. Nice job, and I’m glad you liked it!

    • Oh thank you, I’m glad you liked my review (I was curious to see your thoughts on my review hahaha). But you were definitely right, it is a lovely book and I’m very glad I’ve read it now. 🙂

    • Interesting to know! I doubt it’ll be my favourite in the long run either – now I’m trying to decide between The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84, both of which are currently sitting on my shelves. Oh decisions, decisions…

  4. I haven’t yet read Norwegian Wood, although you’ve certainly convinced me that I should. In fact, I started reading Murakami with Kafka on the Shore, followed by the Wind Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84, and would highly recommend all three!

  5. You just worded it so thoughtfully and beautifully – it really felt as if you were capturing the sense of what the book feels like. Or so I suspect, since I have yet to read it 🙂

    • Thank you so much, that really means a lot to know you liked my review so much! I guess the book really did move me in a lot of ways, and I just wanted to try and capture that in my review – I definitely put a lot more effort in on this one. 😛
      But thank you, really. And I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when you read it 🙂

  6. Great review! Keep meaning to read Norwegian Wood but haven’t managed it yet. You’ve made me want to read it even more! I read Kafka on the Shore and loved it, it’s surreal but superbly written. I loved it so much I read Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World soon after but found it to be a little bizarre (totally bonkers), even for me!

    • Awesome, thanks! 🙂 Yes you should definitely read Norwegian Wood! I want to read some of his other books for the surrealism, as there was really none of it at all in Norwegian Wood, but I think that’s partly why it’s his most popular novel. I can already see where this year is going for me reading wise – a lot of Murakami and a lot of Neil Gaiman, I think.

  7. Pingback: Day 06 – A book that makes you sad (30 Day Book Challenge #2) | Wanton Creation

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