Book Review: Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

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.

From Goodreads

I’m not sure how I want to talk about this book. I’ve read a number of Murakami’s books, and Norwegian Wood is the most down-to-earth of the bunch. There is none of Murakami’s “typical” magical realism in this one. It is a pretty straightforward story (relatively speaking) about Toru’s coming-of-age and his coming to terms with death and the mental health issues of the girl he loves.

That’s not to say it’s a simple or boring story, though. In true Murakami fashion, it is anything but that. The characters are super interesting and there’s a lot going on. At the beginning of the book Toru is 37 years old and is reminded of his first, complicated love when he hears The Beatle’s “Norwegian Wood.” The bulk of the book is Toru’s memories of his college life and relationships in 1960s Japan.

Because I started reading Murakami with books like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84, I couldn’t help but notice the things that were missing from Norwegian Wood. Like I already mentioned, I’m used to Murakami’s magical realism, and I kept waiting for that to happen (it didn’t). I’m used to food being treated almost like another character in Murakami’s books, with descriptions of food and its preparation taking up multiple paragraphs (not in this book).

But Norwegian Wood is very Murakami in other ways. Music plays a huge role in NW, as it does in the other Murakami books I’ve read. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by him, but I think all of his books I’ve read focus on the different connections between people, whether those connections are coincidental or something more. NW definitely focuses on human connection (or the consequences of its lack).

I liked NW, but not as much as some of his other books. I think I’ve been reading so much sci-fi/fantasy lately that I felt slightly let down by the normal world of NW. That’s not to say that it isn’t good, though. It definitely is. And if you’re looking for a way into Murakami, but feel intimidated by some of the things you’ve heard about his books, Norwegian Wood might be a good one to start with. With that said, I should give potential readers a content warning for anxiety, depression, and suicide.

I’ve joined an online Murakami book club (which is great because I have no one in my physical world to discuss Murakami with), and we’re reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World next, so it’s back to typical Murakami surrealism! I’m looking forward to it.

Have any of you seen the movie adaptation of Norwegian Wood? What did you think? Is it good? Worth watching? Let me know!

8 comments

  1. When I was teaching in Japan, a student loaned me the book. It was her favourite, so she bought a copy in English. I liked it very much and because of its lack of magical realism…which I am not really convinced is what is going on in a Murakami book–nothing like 100 Years of Solitude….that is how I see Murakami and have a lot of trouble getting into his other books. HIs running book was good for me.
    I recommend Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter if you want more Japanese novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, I see what you mean about Norwegian Wood. I guess it is still worth reading, but it is good to know beforehand, that some of the typical Murakami signature elements are missing. To be honest, I have never been a big fan of magical realism, so I think, I could live without that element. On the other hand, it wouldn’t feel like Murakami.

    Liked by 1 person

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