Book Review: Norwegian Wood

Graphic by Mrunal Pawar

Trigger Warning: The dominant themes across the story are loneliness, grief, trauma and suicide.

Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer, is one of the most critically-acclaimed authors of his time, who has numerous accolades to his name- the World Fantasy Award, the Franz Kafka Award and the Jerusalem Prize to name just a few. He deals mostly in the genres of surrealism and young romance.

Published in 1987 by Kodansha Publishers, Norwegian Wood is considered one of his most notable works. It is a popular read among teenagers and young adults. Originally written in the author’s native language, Japanese, the novel was titled, Noruwei no Mori. Soon enough, the novel was translated into English in 1989 by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin. The story is written as a recollection of the lead character. En route Germany, a middle-aged man, Toru Watanabe, reminisces about his teenage years… 

Eighteen year-old, shy, timid, quiet and curious Watanabe had no friends. Naoko and Kizuki were exceptions. They were mates. The trio would frequent local restaurants and sometimes, the cinema. The story swerves down a rather morbid path. Kizuki takes his own life- an incident that would change Watanabe more radically than ever, and, for the worse. All the events that followed in his life were nothing but shards of the same trauma revisiting him over and over again. 

Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend, finds herself fancying Watanabe. They bond, but Naoko always seemed distant, mysterious and elusive. This prompts a further narration of Naoko’s trauma. Her sister had taken her life too. We later realise that Naoko quits her academic pursuits and moves to a serene hostel, in her own little escapade where she ultimately finds solace. She finds her real life too overbearing. It is important to note her significance. She, after all, was Watanabe’s first sexual encounter. The book gets its title from her reference itself. ‘Norwegian Wood’ is the name of Naoko’s favourite music track, composed by the English rock band, The Beatles. 

The beauty of Murakami’s writings is that not a single character upholds unrealistic tenets or virtues. Be it their values or behavioural tendencies. They all find themselves amid confusion, chaos, indecision and conflict. They act impulsively and make choices, usually bad ones; just like a teenager normally would. 

Watanabe leaves his hometown for higher studies. His new residence, a dormitory, isn’t the friendliest environment. He finds himself in a furiously conservative and disciplinarian campus culture. He gets bullied, and watches others get bullied. He, then, ‘befriends’ Nagasawa- an aggressively goal-oriented, Machiavellian womaniser.

Every persona Murakami crafted is intricate and well-defined. Nagasawa loses count of the women he took to bed. So much so, that he was emotionally numbed. He couldn’t think romantically even if he wanted to. Hatsumi, his girlfriend, was a confident, doting and emotionally-available woman, who, obviously, Nagasawa never deserved. He is emblematic of what happens if a teenager is way too reckless and unhinged. All that is left behind is carnage, lack of inner peace and irreparable spiritual unrest. 

Yet another woman, Midori Kobayashi, waltzed into Watanabe’s life. She would dress provocatively and keep her hair rebelliously short. Midori’s father, Mr. Kobayashi, passes away. In the absence of her parents through childhood, Midori learns how to parent herself. She becomes fiercely independent, knows how to cook, attend to her father, lives alone and draws even closer to her sister. It’s abundantly clear that she is too tangled to grieve properly. The literary genius in Murakami’s quill lies in the fact that Midori’s tale is enough to stir the reader’s soul, and far enough to move them to tears, as if their own father died. The insecurities, feelings and experiences of the characters are, always, oddly relatable. 

Murakami outperforms other writers because he knows how to describe feelings that are otherwise beyond description. The reader lives through every emotion and every character. In Kizuki’s death, you feel deserted. In Watanabe’s dorm, you feel homesick. In Naoko’s trauma, you feel numb. In Midori’s grief, you cry. If you find yourself craving a light read, Norwegian Wood isn’t the best pick. 

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