London, United Kingdom
Norwegian Wood is not a typical Murakami tale. It does not feature disappearing cats, strange mental worlds or a dystopian vision of the near future. The novel is a story of romance, youth and beauty, set in Japan in the 1960s.
We follow the narrator, Toru Watanabe, as he reflects on his university years, focusing particularly on his love for two women, the ethereally beautiful yet troubled Naoko and the extraverted and witty Midori. The novel is not just a love story though; it is filled with symbolism and figurative possibility.
Murakami explores some complex and multifaceted themes in this novel, including Naoko’s mental instabilities. He presents them in a fresh and intriguing light, positing the notion that, from Toru’s perspective at least, the sanatorium at which she stays is a place of order and harmony, especially when compared to the chaotic, discordant Japan around it. Every so often, Toru travels to the sanatorium, which is deep in the countryside, and finds himself feeling serene and peaceful. These feelings are destroyed when he returns to his life in Tokyo—an interesting critique of urban life.
The novel provides an accurate snapshot of the times. The reader learns of a Japan full of passion and unrest, often in equal measures. The youth are vying for change, both to their livelihoods and to wider society.
Murakami allows us to delve deeper into their world through Toru’s eyes—we learn of people like Nagasawa, officious, strong-minded, and a good candidate for the civil service who is filled with lust and a desire to preach his own, twisted version of love for his suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi, to others. The book offers many of these psychological portraits of the people with whom Toru comes into contact. The character portrayals in turn allow the reader to learn more about the originally neutral narrator, Toru, since we are seeing it through his eyes.
Murakami also shows the life-changing effect of Toru’s youth on his adulthood. The opening moments of the novel show Toru on a flight, and the onboard stereo is playing the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, a song strongly associated with Naoko and Reiko, both of whom lived in the sanatorium. Toru immediately feels a crushing sense of dread and unhappiness and has to be checked on by the attendant more than once.
The novel also presents ideas on suicide, which was unfortunately relatively prominent among the Japanese youth at that time. We learn of two of Toru’s closest companions who take their own life before and during the novel. Toru finds himself wandering aimlessly through Japan, sometimes barely surviving.
There are many cases of literarily intriguing concepts in the novel; it is a worthy read. There are aspects of us all in Toru, and his experiences may well prove to be the spiritual lifeline we all sometimes need.