Not the Beatles, Murakami

Review Over the Poignant Coming of Age Novel ‘Norwegian Wood’


Photo by Anthony Whiting

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami first released the novel that propelled him to international recognition, “Norwegian Wood” in 1987 and has released 28 books in total. The red, white and black cover depicted shows what appears to be shadows cast under slender tree trunks correlating to the title, but the more detailed visual shows pairs of feet with two people facing left and one right.

Anthony Whiting, Reporter

In a train-ride distance from greater-Tokyo to the more remote forests of Kyoto, the novel “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami presents the ordain youth problems of university education, identity, isolation and love into 307 pages. Sharing its namesake with a Beatles song, the lyrics encapsulate the written idea of distant love and unfair circumstances in the novel.

The story follows protagonist Toru Watanabe who has just begun his studies at a private university in Tokyo. The whole story is a flashback to his life at age 19 during the 1960s from his 30s, which I found interesting as the book does not rotate between the two but is rather just a normal chronological plot structure. Toru experiences the traumatic loss of his childhood best friend, Kizuki, to suicide. He shares a mutual understanding with Kuzuki’s former girlfriend, Naoko, due to the fact that each has never experienced such a strong and deep bond with a person to the same extent as with their deceased friend. I think the character dynamic is relatable to the human experience because often a singular friend can be so valuable, like family, and to lose someone as a developing teen can truly leave a missing void. I relate to this element as I have found strong attachment to individuals friends that I have grown close to rather than a large group.

I would say that Murakami definitely remains true to his signature style of writing in many ways. The protagonist does not exist in an overly extravagant world but rather a straightforward worldview, a mellow tone of speech, and lacks significant backstory. I feel a divide between Toru and the other characters, Midori and Naoko, because his backstory and future motives remain a mystery to the reader. There are always elements of mystery and this is no different for Toru Watanabe. Funnily enough, Toru is a drama major but is not interested in theatre or cannot articulate a rhyme nor reason for deciding this. My introduction to Murakami was “Kafka on the Shore” and I was impressed by the rollercoaster that the novel put me on. Unfortunately the magical realism in “Kafka on the Shore” was not a part of this novel which I think might have been the problem of a slower story progression at times.

The plot continues with the reeling and shouldering of grief. At this point in the novel, I am feeling immersed in the loud and chaotic environment of the new city that appears off-paced to his life. Toru meets an exuberant and charming dormate while at university named Nagasawa. Just like music within the book, there are also books within the book and Nagasawa and Watanabe, as he likes to tease him as, originally connect over literary merit of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Mann. I enjoyed reading Fitzgerald and I think the interpersonal relations, class and society are similar in this novel. The male gaze described when the two college boys go out with each other I think is more descriptive than necessary, but is in-line with the author’s writing. On the surface, the two characters are similar, but in reality, they act as the novel’s polarity and do not bring out the best attributes in each other. I think there is a powerful lesson in the consequences of complacency and not speaking out that can cause harm to your peers.

The love interest in the book, Naoko, the girlfriend of Toru’s childhood best friend, is primarily living at a psychiatric facility due to her deteriorating mental health and unresolved trauma of Kizuki’s death. Grief returns here in the question of internal healing versus societal standards of speedy recovery. In my opinion, these overarching themes at times are more powerful than the plot. The exchange of letters between Watanabe and Naoko are revealed and they both struggle to reciprocate the love and time needed for each other. I think that the confusion surrounding young love can be understandable for readers. While at school and away from Naoko, a love triangle forms, including another girl, Midori. If Naoko represents the past of Toru Watanabe, I believe that the energized character that is Midori represents the future possibilities that have to be given the opportunity to come to fruition.

While “Norwegian Wood” definitely has its flaws including outdated gender representation and stereotypes, in my opinion, the book is worth a read at least once. Murakami’s opinion of certain people being irredeemable is not one I agree with, but I like viewing this work in a historical context and the themes are classic and timeless that humanity will continue to discuss.