Title: Norwegian Wood
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Romance, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary
(Note: this is not a new review)
Being a music junkie and a bookworm made me jump excitedly when I saw this book, Norwegian Wood, for the first time about four years ago. The Beatles and Haruki Murakami occupy two different “I-love-this” ladders in my system, but both of them are settled on the highest rung. For some reason I find the combination rather interesting, so I picked it up, getting myself ready for the usual Murakami treat thrown with a spice of good ol’ music.
But no, this book doesn’t have the typical elements you’ll see in a Murakami book. No surrealism of any kind, no Oedipal prophecies or soul-searching in wells or talking cats or prostitutes of the mind. This is perhaps the only “normal” book that Murakami has ever written, a coming-of-age love story that is readily accessible to most young adults of our day.
The novel kicks off with the old Toru Watanabe reminiscing the most important days of his youth while listening to Norwegian Wood (The Bird Has Flown), the favorite song of his high school friend Naoko. The readers are then taken to 1960s Japan, where student activism is at its full swing. Toru and his friends are rather apolitical, and the narrator often comments on the hypocrisy of the students. The novel didn’t focus much on it anyway—that only provided the milieu of the complicatedly romantic bildungsroman. Toru is friends with lovers Kizuki and Naoko—that is, until the former committed suicide at the age of 17. The two are left grieving, but they find themselves being romantically attracted to each other. However fate seems to have another plan for them, and Naoko needs to go away for some time. Then enters another girl character, the outspoken, energetic, cheerful, and confident Midori. Toru still likes Naoko, but he thinks he likes Midori too. And as if it’s not complex enough, Reiko, Naoko’s friend, adds another side to make it all a confusing love polygon.
With that premise at its core, the story is still populated with intriguing themes: suicide, sex, identity crisis, and a little bit of politics. And of course, how could I forget? It’s all about growing up.
I know why a lot of young readers love this book. For one, what kind of teenager doesn’t become interested in love stories at least once in their life? Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I’m not an avid fan of ordinary love stories; I just can’t find the thrill in the infamously clichéd boy-meets-girl-loses-girl blah-blahs. But what makes Norwegian Wood exceptional for me is its depth. That’s why I love Murakami; nothing he ever writes is what it seems, be it surreal or otherwise. Every word has a profundity in them, the dialogues are powerfully executed, and how he hands the reader the strings to tie it at the end is spot-on.
Objectively speaking, this book is not perfect (is there any perfect book?). There are dry and slow points at the wrong places in the novel, making me roll me eyes sometimes for the lost momentum. But Murakami will always be able to come up with something that can redeem the whole book, be it a twist or a deeper kind of surrealism or just a melancholic ending that leaves the story’s door ajar for the benefit of the reader.
This may not be my favorite book, and it's not Murakami's best, but it has a special place in my heart.