Book Review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

SUMMARY from Amazon:
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This stunning and elegiac novel by the author of the internationally acclaimed Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has sold over 4 million copies in Japan and is now available to American audiences for the first time.  It is sure to be a literary event.

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.

REVIEW:

WARNING! Some spoilers ahead. Be careful if you haven’t read the book!

I have never been good at reading translations. It’s always in the back of my mind that what I’m reading is not the piece in its original forms: it is not how the author originally wished it to be presented. I don’t know, therefore, whether it is to Murakami or its translator Jay Rubin who I should give the credit for keeping me thoroughly engaged with this one.

It was my first time to read a Murakami. I am brand new in reading Haruki Murakami’s novels and this is my first novel written by him. And that intrigued me to read of his famous novels, Norwegian Wood. I’ve wanted to read something by Murakami for a while now, just from reading reviews on GoodReads and it sparked my curiosity.

I must say that the author has that talent to turn every sentence like a work of art—something worth millions…Every sentence is poetic. I started reading his works, it intrigued me, it creep me out, it weirded me — but the bottom line is: I LIKED IT. Before I bought this book, I’ve heard so many things about it. Publishing this book in Japan made Murakami somewhat a ‘literary superstar’ in his country. Right now most people are reading 1Q84, that I’m planning to read also but I wanted to start with something a little more simple and basic.

Before reviewing or rather I would say giving my naive opinion on this book, I better start with my assumptions with this book. Was this book a little ego-centric and self-serving? Yes. Did that prevent this book from being another example of Murakami’s brilliance? No. When we read a novel from a new author, we start expecting something new and better every time we read of their works but along the process we tend to forget that there are very few writers in this world who challenge themselves to tread a different path and walking upon it too and that’s exactly Murakami did with this novel.

Essentially, the book functions as a love story. It’s a love story with a pragmatic and realistic view on human emotions. At its center is Toru Watanabe and his experiences as teenager living in Tokyo during the 60s. The novel opens with Toru, already in late 30s. He heard the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood” which overwhelmed him and reminded him of his experiences in the 1960s which he claimed to have changed his life. Then the story suddenly shifts to his memory of the 1960’s, when he’s 17.

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He’s an average guy and a decent student. He tells us about a woman he loved intensely and lost.  Toru at nineteen is a young college student who rekindles a friendship with Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki, who killed himself when they were seventeen. He has been haunted by the incident…even prompting him to move out of town, and continue studying where no one really knows him and what happened in his early years. However, when he met Kizuki’s long time girlfriend, Naoko, everything changed. He and Naoko share this distinct connection, struggle to build a friendship that is more than simply sharing memories of their friend. They are bound together by Kizuki’s death, but also limited by it. Unfortunately, Naoko grows increasingly troubled, and she admitted into a sanatorium, a communal mental establishment hidden far in the mountains, where residents care for each other and free from the stress of the outside world.  As Naoko struggles with her health, Toru must figure out what their relationship is and how he can help her.  At the same time, in the days that he seeks human companionship, he meets another girl, Midori, a student in his classes, who he found himself drawn to. Midori has her own issues and although the two take comfort in each other’s company, they can’t seem to move past the Toru/Naoko connection. What starts off as an innocent friendship turns into something else, but how far can it go when your heart also loves another? The book chronicles the struggle Toru has in figuring out his feelings for the two ladies, as well as figuring out himself.

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Norwegian Wood is definitely not just another predictable romantic story. Written in the perspective of the male protagonist, it’s likely a book that boys can appreciate better than girls. I find the male perspective to be interesting, to see the world through a male’s eyes. Girls might appreciate the book as it provides a peek into the minds of boys. But again, there are several other things Murakami surfaced along with love, and how it symbolizes sadness, like Death and quoting here: “Death exists, not as the opposite but as the part of life,” but in this book, Death exists as a part of this Book. There is a lot of death and a lot of grief in this book.

The characters in the book were another thing. Besides Toru Watanabe, who is the main character of the story who labels himself as “ordinary”. He is an average college student majoring in drama who enjoys reading classic American literature. The way Toru speaks shows much of his personality. The book has a lot of interesting characters that I’ve grown to love.

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Naoko, which forms almost one third of the triangle that the book focused on, is developed in some detail, though not in as much detail as I would like. She was the girlfriend of Kizuki and the new lover of Toru. She is gentle and beautiful but also emotionally fragile and susceptible to the world around her.  Murakami portrays her as a very gentle, almost angelic figure, a timid, shy woman who was clammed up in innocence as she struggles to free herself in her past and everything that’s holding her back. Same with Toru, but in a more serious way.

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And then there’s Midori Kobayashi. She is a strange, outgoing classmate of Toru who acts as a foil to Naoko’s character. Midori is one of the few people whom Toru reaches out to in a life of solitude and isolation. Unlike Naoko, Midori has a unique way of thinking that shows her character in a straight forward way. She is fiercely independent and impulsive of her actions which are refreshing to readers when compared to the other melancholic, pensive, and introspective characters. I love her. In a story where negativity is all over the place, having a character like her is a breath of fresh air. For me, she provides the balance in the whole story.

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But one of the characters’ I’ve enjoyed reading in this book is Toru’s friend, Nagasawa, is a prestigious diplomacy college student and a friend of Toru. He had this unique way to deal with the world. Nagasawa acts as the epitome of someone who Toru would never want to be. I enjoy how his mind works, and how he tends to make living less complicated.

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And there’s also Reiko Ishida, is Naoko’s roommate in the mountain sanatorium who acts as a joyful and rather optimistic therapist between Toru and Naoko’s relationship.  Her story was something really tragic, and one that really stuck with me.

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I must admit, the overall tone of the novel has been too depressing for me. Though I like myself an emotional reader, reading it became unbearable at times especially when I need some motivation to go on with. Hehe Suicide is very rampant in the whole novel.  So if you can’t really tolerate such negative emotions all at once, this book is not for you.

I liked how Murakami, while concentrating on big themes of love, loss, and disconnectedness, really pays attention to the small details of daily life, like bus routes and part-time jobs.  Money isn’t a key issue in the story but it’s definitely recognized by characters as important. I’ve never been to Japan, but Murakami’s vivid description made me feel I was there.

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Thus the book presents us with completely different ways of dealing with the emotional imbalance. One tries to escape the world, one tries to come in terms with the world, one tries to look out for some hope and the other tries to sleep with women. For me the book is very special for its beautiful depiction of the amazing feeling of being in love and clearly separates it from lust. The beautiful poetry and the usage of metaphors to get the right impression hit everyone alike. The pain, the love and emotional impact experienced by every character which is very special in its own sense are so well presented and it enthralled me. It’s no wonder the novel had created wonders in Japan becoming success.

This book is beautifully written, and I really enjoyed the characters and identified with their struggles.  The story is dark but not overwhelming; it somehow remains subtle.  I occasionally found the dialogue stilted, compared to the rest of the narrative.  I expect that has something to do with the translation of the book, or cultural/language differences.

Also, I saw the movie after reading the book. They say the book is almost always better than the movie, right? I bet that is true in this case as well. Since I start reading the book first I know that many of the book lovers may be disappointed with all the details left out, you’ll hunger for more information about these characters, which you will get by reading the book. And I say that the book left me with a stronger impression than the film but I commend the beautiful visuals and music which are stunningly gorgeous and work very well together, even though the film had clear flaws. This is probably the strongest aspect of the film. Reviewing the film on its own, though, I would say that more background information was needed to give the characters more depth and bring meaning to their actions.

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Here’s the trailer of the film that was released in Japan in 2010:
I kept seeing quotes of this book everywhere! The funny thing was the quotes were just so strangely worded that I understood it and got me interested. Here are some few:

“But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.” 

“No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth,no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it,but what we learn willbe no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.” ~ Toru Watanabe

“So I made up my mind I was going to find someone who would love me unconditionally three hundred and sixty-five days a year. That’s the hard part. I guess I’ve been waiting so long I’m looking for perfection. That makes it tough.” ~ Midori

“Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that eighteen years later I would recall it in such detail. I didn’t give a damn about the scenery that day. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about the beautiful girl walking next to me. I was thinking about the two of us together, and then about myself again. It was the age, that time of life when every sight, every feeling, every thought came back, like a boomerang, to me. And worse, I was in love. Love with complications. The scenery was the last thing on my mind.”

This is a moving story about love, friendship and first relationships.  I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to reading more of Murakami’s work. I do recommend reading it, but read it with fresh eyes and see if the book impressed you in the same way. It would definitely appeal to anyone who has interest in the Japanese culture. Please give it a try if you find sometime and feel the difference. If you’re a Murakami fan, what would you recommend?

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

    1. Are you sure you really want to know?? Haha so let me say this…It’s an open ending, I guess. I used to think that Watanabe committed suicide, cause the end was quite spooky.

      I’d rather interpret it in a positive sense. When Naoko commits suicide, Toru unable to cope with life. He is crying out for Midori to save him. It was not told if he is pulled back from this darkness by Midori – but I’d like to believe she did. Just the fact that Watanabe chose Midori over Naoko shows that he chose life over death, i think.

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  1. I have to agree with you in the translation part! I don’t know if the prose is the same in the original Japanese text. And Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum translate Murakami’s works quite differently. If it’s your first time reading a Murakami book, and you’re thinking of reading more, then you should get used to the depressing atmosphere of his works.

    I enjoyed this review. It gives me a different perspective of the book. It didn’t cross my mind that the male perspective is advantageous for the female audience. I read this book three times now, but I just recently reviewed it. You can find my review here. http://pageprophet.blogspot.com/2013/11/book-review-norwegian-wood.html

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    1. Hi! Yes this is my first book of Murakami and currently reading his IQ84. I just read your review and i agree with you of the randomness of the story. His habit of layering introspection on top of introspection makes the novel’s emotions and choices feel enormous and I loved it!

      I’m glad you enjoyed my review and thank you for stopping-by on my blog! :)

      Like

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