Considered one of the definitive novels of Japanese literary history, Haruki Murkami's Norwegian Wood catapulted him to celebrity status in his home country and drove him to leave Japan in an attempt to evade the glare of widespread fame. Interestingly, though Murakami is revered as a writer of magical realism, Norwegian Wood presents a slightly more basic story to the naked eye. The novel follows Toru, a young man entering his first year of college in 1960s Tokyo, and his relationship with the beautiful Naoko, whose spirit has been broken by the death of their mutual best friend, her boyfriend Kizuki. As Toru finds himself drawn closer to Naoko, Naoko withdraws further into herself, and soon Toru connects with another student - the independent, freethinking Midori - whose liberated attitude introduces him to a new kind of feeling.
Although on the surface it seems to be a relatively simpler novel with its more commonplace story, Norwegian Wood has a way of transcending the very imagery it presents to the reader. Murakami’s inquisitive look at how we react to loss is staggering in its depth as he pursues the two paths one might take: the choice to live in love and the choice to retreat from life. He explores the emotional and psychological scope of these choices through his host of characters: in Toru he shows the reader the hopeful perseverance of youth turned to maturity; in Naoko we recognize the abyss of loss and sadness; and in Midori we find freedom in the fight against discontent. Together the characters and their stories weave a collection of threads that seem relatively straightforward, but the most intriguing thing about the nature of Norwegian Wood is how, by the final page, it will almost certainly have its readers questioning everything they thought they knew. In this way Murakami took a rather traditional device, a love triangle, and worked his unique magic on it in a way that manages to completely alter the reader’s experience. Here, the tragedies of life give way to an endless stream of potential realities, and the result is a beautiful, heartbreaking homage to youth and love, touched by the nuances of the 1960s.
Murakami's language is fluid and evocative throughout the novel. Perhaps some of the most spellbinding scenes take place when Toru visits the sanatorium to which Naoko retreats when the struggle of living with Kizuki's death is too much for her. Here, with Reiko, her troubled older roommate, strumming her guitar to a selection of Beatles tunes, Murakami's prose finds some of its most beautiful and introspective moments. As an intriguing contrast, the scenes which find Toru with Midori offer a more anxious energy while still maintaining a sense of deep contemplation. Midori’s fearless pursuit of sexual liberation and her eager determination to lose herself in the bizarre, even the grotesque, showcase the loudness of rebellion and freedom against Naoko’s quiet, simple life away from society. The combination of the two women in Toru’s life brings the vividness of the story to its utmost clarity and allows Murakami, in his remarkable way, to bend, break, and otherwise manipulate the most honest – and yet the most otherworldly – human emotions. Set to a soundtrack of an unforgettable era, Norwegian Wood is a touching exploration of the impact love has in our lives, the many shapes it takes, and ultimately the choices it drives us to make.
Norwegian Wood was my May pick for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I've only read Murakami's work briefly in the past, but I continue to find that his stories resonate with me. Norwegian Wood was a particularly dark novel compared to what I've read of his work before, but I think that was due in a large part to the reality of much of his subject matter here. His work, I think, manages an emotional impact whether it's rooted in elements of contemporary fiction or magical realism (and sometimes, maybe, so deeply entwined in both that we as readers can't tell one from the other).