Norwegian Wood

Haruki Murakami

This is the book that made Murakami so famous in Japan that he had to take refuge in the anonymity of Europe and later the US. Norwegian Wood is a simple straightforward narrative with little of the ‘fantastic’ that is so much a part of his other novels. It is the story of a young man, Toru’s journey into adulthood.

Written as a remembrance by a 37 year old Toru, this story moves from school life in Kobe to university days in Tokyo. University life in Tokyo seems very Western – Toru reads Scott Fitzgerald, Updike, Thomas Mann and listens to the Beatles, Bill Evans, Cream, Simon & Garfunkel. It’s the late ‘60s and there are rumblings of the student unrest in the background, but there is never any intrusion of that into the story. In fact, there is very little intrusion of the outside world into Toru’s inner world. He does go out partying and picking up women with his college friend Nagasawa. But that is never the real Toru – he is most himself with his books and his intense relationships.

The story is of Toru’s relationship with 2 women – the Naoko who is the love of his life and Midori, his college-mate. Toru’s obsession with Naoko is long-lasting; 17 years after he has last seen her, airplane renditions of Norwegian Wood, her favourite song, can still bring him to his knees. He knows Naoko from his schooldays in Kobe. She is his best friend Kizuki’s girlfriend. Kizuki, for reasons he cannot comprehend, commits suicide at the age of 17. Later when he and Naoko make their way to college in Tokyo, they meet again and Kizuki’s death binds them together like nothing else can. He begins spending more and more time with her; their Sunday walks across Tokyo providing the highlights of their weeks. He begins to see however, that Naoko is a troubled young woman with demons to fight in her head. She retires to a home in northern Japan to get her bearings back, and he visits her there periodically, spending time just ‘being’ with her and her roommate, an older woman Reiko. He believes it is just a matter of time before Naoko will become alright and she can come back to Tokyo with him. But life isn’t always that easy - Naoko soon loses her fight with her demons and she is lost to him forever.

While Naoko is fighting for her sanity, Toru meets another woman – Midori. The antithesis of Naoko, Midori lives in the here and now. Vivacious and highly energetic, Midori knows enough of the downside of life to realize the importance of living life fully. The more Naoko withdraws from the world, the more Toru is drawn towards the life Midori shows him. Yet at the end, Norwegian Wood is Toru’s paean to Naoko.

Death and suicides stalk the book. At one point, Toru says, ‘Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life’. It could prove the guiding principle of the book. Pain accompanies a loved one’s death. But it is living with that pain, even learning from it, and yet getting on with life – that is the journey into adulthood. To me, this book was Toru’s learning of that lesson.


UL said…
Strange, I was at Barnes and Nobles the other day to pick up some books for my daughter and I happened across this book. Read the reviews and the synopsis on the cover and wondered why it was called Norwegian Wood? I meant to read it, just to find out. The next day I googled it to learn more and came up with this other link on Norwegian Wood(, but didn't know what to make of it.
It's becoming clearer after reading your review on the book. The author being a Beatles fan and the way his life turned out, the name seems to match his story quite well. And hence the name. Did I get that right? Or is there another reason? Do tell me, as it will be awhile before I get down to reading everything in my list of "To reads'" :)
small talk said…
Actually, the Beatles fan is Naoko, the narrator's love. Norwegian Wood is her favourite song.
UL said…
Ah, I see- makes sense.

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