Masterpieces #7: Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood
About Norwegian Wood (1987)
Norwegian WoodWhen he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. Immediately he is transported back almost twenty years to his student days in Tokyo, adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire – to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marches into his life and he has to choose between the future and the past.

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Norwegian Wood (1987)

For a long time I never thought I would read a better book than The Lord of the Rings, then one day my brother mentioned a novel by a Japanese author named Haruki Murakami. He assured me it was a very good read so, always willing to try new writers and happy to embrace anything from Japan, I borrowed a copy. My brother is one of the lucky owners of Norwegian Wood in its original format i.e. a gold box containing two small books – one red and one green. When first released in the late eighties the book was very popular with Japanese students who were said to carry one of the two books with them, dependent on which they related to the most. Armed with my two little books I commenced reading Murakami’s masterpiece that propelled him so suddenly and unexpectedly to fame that he fled Japan, unable to cope with his new found status, and would not see him return to his homeland for nearly a decade.

The novel begins with Toru Watanabe arriving in Germany and no sooner has he stepped foot on German soil than he hears the music to Norwegian Wood by The Beatles. Toru is immediately taken back to his days at university in Tokyo in the Sixties, to a time of rebellious students, alcohol, sex, wandering in the wilderness of teenage angst and reaching a life changing crossroads. Toru is faced with the choice of being alone, being with his troubled friend Naoko or with a new girl in his life – the free spirited Midori.

The first noticeable for me about Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s style. Like Hemingway, I found the prose simple but vivid in its imagery, giving life to the many surroundings and capturing a myriad of memorable characters with so much conviction on the page. Midori is a delightful character, being outspoken, confident and unmoved by social convention. Naoko, in contrast, is depicted as extremely fragile both physically and mentally. With Midori, Toru is often dragged through the streets of Tokyo to be involved in all kinds of mischief and fun, but with Naoko the conversation becomes more ponderous and serious.

Norwegian Wood made me nostalgic for my own days at university. The many characters Toru meets all have their own enduring qualities. Midori aside, Toru spends a lot of time with Nagasawa who sleeps with countless girls regardless of the impact on his long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi. She puts up with her boyfriend’s betrayals and even tries to advice Toru on his own predicament. Outside university, another notable character is Reiko, a music teacher and friend of Naoko who is convalescing at a sanatorium after the breakdown of her marriage and music career. She becomes integral as a mediator between Toru and Naoko as they try to build their relationship.

The love triangle at the centre of Norwegian Wood is both moving and fascinating. On the one hand Midori helps ease Toru’s sadness and longing for Naoko, but in becoming drawn to her he only feels guilty and that this act is a betrayal to Naoko who he still professes to love. How this love triangle resolves itself is not for me to say and with the ending to the book it is clear Murakami had a difficult time making a decision as well. I had hoped the film adaptation of Norwegian Wood would recreate the majesty of Murakami’s novel but it sadly fell way short despite retaining some of the book’s essence.

The first time I read Norwegian Wood I found myself angry and resentful after turning that final page and closing the book for good. My fury was not born of any weakness in the novel but purely out of frustration that it was over. I’ve since read the book on two more occasions and its impact on me remains undiminished. When Mrs B and I were just friends I recommended the book to her and after reading it she had nothing but praise, even insisting it had changed her life. Murakami’s novel is beautifully written, with intoxicating prose, heartfelt and believable characters and sensuous imagery from the bustling streets of Tokyo to the serenity of the sanatorium. One day I may read a better book than Norwegian Wood but if you were to say to me now that this is as good as fiction gets then no one will be more pleased than me.

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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