Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – A Review
Rating – 4/5
My first experience with Murakami was reading “Kafka on the Shore” and this book had left me speechless. Although this metaphysical yarn with talking cats and spirits moving in and out of the body was way out of my comfort zone, I totally enjoyed the reading process. An initial approach to understand each and every aspect left me struggling a bit till I found the best way to enjoy Murakami’s works – to let the words transport you into a faraway world and cocoon you in their warmth. So, there was nothing out of the ordinary when I hogged on Murakami books on a recent shopping spree. Struggling to select a book from this lot my eyes fell on Norwegian Wood. Soon, I was on an unstoppable reading binge turning page after page of the Norwegian Wood.
Norwegian Wood is a story of love, loss, adulthood and sexuality. Narrated by Toru Watanabe, a young and precocious college student, it details his love for Naoko, a sensitive and introverted girl with whom he shares a tragic past of suicide of a mutual friend Kizuki. Both Naoko and Toru try to cope up with this loss in their own separate ways. Naoko, having a deeper relationship with Kizuki, is profoundly affected by this incident which ultimately leads to her withdrawal from daily life. She moves away to an unorthodox treatment facility to address her psychological issues which runs much deeper than the suicide of Kizuki. She is aided in her recovery by her mentor and roommate Ishida Reiko along with regular letters from Toru showing his love and support. Into this complicated and fragile relation enters Midori, an outgoing and independent woman who is full of life, who Toru finds himself drawn to.
This books stands apart from other Murakami books by its “normal” theme. The absence of any metaphysical element or unnatural events might be a bit disappointing for a hardcore Murakami fan. However, his writing and narrative are as strong as ever. The beginning of the novel details the life of Toru as a college student in a community hostel. The excerpts of his hostel life and roommate are genuinely funny and bring some semblance of normality into the story. From the moment Naoko graces the pages, there is an ever present air of melancholy packed into each and every line. Slowly Murakami reveals the troubled past of Toru and Naoko and we find ourselves hoping that they find solace in each other’s company. Naoko is completely restrained due to her mental shackles that imprison her in the world of dead. Midori’s introduction slightly overcomes the melancholic narrative and tries to infuse it with some life. Midori’s personality provides an excellent contrast to the introspective nature of Naoko. However, rather than pushing Naoko to the back of our minds, her presence grows much stronger in the pages as well as in Toru’s life through her absence. She is like a cool winter breeze whose gentle caress leaves your body shivering.
Murakami maturely deals with mortality and its psychological impact on the surviving. Toru and Naoko are both “guilty” of survival when Kizuki decides to end his life at a young age. To continue living bearing the memories of the ever young Kizuki impacts them psychologically leading to a damaged life. In a culture where no thought of mortality is considered weak, death and its impact are not to be dealt with. Yet, release comes to Toru only after accepting death as a part of life, something which can’t exist without the other. Death does not mean a complete obliteration of a person, but their continued existence through others. In the pages of this book, death is not unnatural but a part of living. Every character bears the burden of death or loss in their life to become who they are.
Murakami details a wide range of unforgettable characters throughout this novel all bound by a thread of loss. The female characters except Midori are serene and magnanimous though they all have deep psychological scars that affect their personalities. The only other male character is Nagasawa, a complete alpha male, who is downright different from Toru. The book also details the sexual liberation of the protagonist through his various experiences. Sexual act is shown as a form of communication between Naoko and Toru when the barrier of languages and thoughts break down. In contrast to Toru’s sanctified approach to sex is that of Nagasawa, for whom sex is just an act without any emotional connection.
This is the coming of age story of Toru Watanabe and the life events that influence his journey from a naïve young man struggling with a personal loss to an adult who comes to terms with the different shades of love and losses in life. This book pays homage to Murakami’s skill as an excellent story teller and writer for transforming a seemingly simple narrative into a complex tale filled with different layers of emotions ranging from sorrow to redemption. This is a must read for anyone who wants to get lost in a truly remarkable narrative!