Author : Haruki Murakami
Translator : Jay Rubin
Published By : Vintage Books
Year Published : 1987
Genre/Tags : Asian Fiction, Japanese Literature, Literary Fiction, General Fiction, Romance, Coming-Of-Age
Mood : Contemplative, quietly depressing, potentially cathartic
Formats : Paperback, Hardcover, eBook
# of Pages : 296 pages
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.
I struggled so much with writing and organizing this review, and finally decided to split it into three easy, concise sections. I hope it remains informative. Also on a random note, there are many different covers for this book. I usually dislike movie versions of book covers but this is one of those rare occasions where I preferred the movie cover for more accurately depicting the age of the characters. Plus, a lot of people might not be aware there’s a movie adaptation to check out.
The Great Things
The highly quotable writing style conjures vivid emotions. There is well realized imagery here, some punchy and memorable dialogue, and interesting analogies. Haruki Murakami’s writing style is kind of known for that, and all that I loved about The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is mostly present here.
The characters are intense, wildly varying forces of personality. The characterization leaves a strong impression, even though it veers into some unbelievable territory. The characters have interesting things to do and say and sometimes left me very surprised, or frequently changing my mind about them. They’re definitely not one-note in nature.
The approach to loss and mourning. This is a book about suicide. The atmosphere can be almost dense and oppressive- but also warm and full of genuine emotion. I sympathized strongly with Toru even when I sort of disliked him.
This is perhaps the most recommendable and approachable Haruki Murakami novel. This book is just over 300 pages. The themes of it are pretty basic to grasp- love and romance, coming of age, loss and mourning. The plot is just tidier to organize and think about compared to my experience with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. There’s also the matter of the many references to older but well known Western musicians and authors. I recommend looking up a lot of the songs that are mentioned, as they strongly resonate with the story being told here. Some of the problems faced by the characters are startlingly relevant on a universal level.
I was surprised by the romance. Okay, so this isn’t a romance in the traditional sense. Nor a love story in the traditional sense. But I still kind of consider it a romantic love story, in some complicated interpretation. Toru’s semi-unrequited feelings for Naoko really got to me at points, and somehow the lack of a clean and easy straight line to explaining the state of their relationship made it more compelling. Also, romantic feelings written by male authors usually do not devastate or fully, quietly permeate a novel the way they do here. (Unless we’re talking about Japanese visual novels, of which I’m familiar, but that could be considered a whole other broad medium.)
The magical realism that Haruki Murakami is known for isn’t present here. This book is shockingly down-to-earth. In that way, it could be recommendable to some but doesn’t show off the extent of the author’s mind-bending gifts.
There is a lot of gaudily explicit, potentially disturbing content. The main character, Toru, is around the age of 19-20 during most of the book and has several vulgar conversations. There are some detailed sex scenes or talk of sex, a surprising amount for a novel widely considered as literary fiction. Their presence didn’t bother me but your mileage my vary. The exploration of suicide is also replete with details that could be triggering for some and cathartic for others.
What I didn’t like
While not a markedly worse book, I didn’t like it as much as The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. For all the ways that book challenged me, I look back on it more fondly for the overarching plot (difficult to describe as it is) huge cast of odd characters (a bit more likable an assortment than there is Norwegian Wood, subjectively speaking) and the magical realism culminating in this strange thrilling showdown that I can’t even begin to describe. While I enjoyed Norwegian Wood, it’s a bit of a small and intriguing enigma where The Wind Up Bird Chronicle was a giant one. I would rather watch Toru Okada having an existential breakdown at the bottom of a well than Toru Watanabe go on strange dates, I guess. I am nonetheless, dedicated to continue exploring this author’s works.
Overall Rating – 8.5/10
Why You Should Check It Out – If you’re interested in trying one of Haruki Murakami’s novels but want something more down-to-earth. Fairly short and briskly paced. It could be great if you prefer characters in their late teens early 20s, a love story of sorts, and don’t mind something heavy and sad.
Why You Might Not Like It – Some of the language between the (albeit somewhat juvenile) main characters is vulgar. The explicit sexual content is not going to be up everyone’s alley. I would have preferred the presence of magical realism.Norwegian Wood (Amazon Link)
Have you read this book or are interested in reading it? Please feel free to share your thoughts, I read and appreciate all your likes and comments. Thanks so much for reading my review!