by Haruki Murakami
Vintage, September 2000
(first published 1987)
Paperback, 293 pages
As middle-aged Toru Watanabe’s flight lands at the gloomy Hamburg airport and the plane begins taxying to the terminal, an orchestral version of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” begins playing through the ceiling speakers. Hearing this song takes him back to his youth in the autumn of 1969.
At the age of 18, Toru moves from his home in Kobe to a university in Tokyo. One day in this new city, he runs into an old friend, Naoko, with whom he shares an obsessive grief over the suicide of Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend, Kizuki, when they were 17. Although the two were never close before, they begin taking weekly walks together, exploring every corner of Tokyo as they become more intimate.
However, something occurs between them and Naoko crumples beneath the weight of her emotional demons. She relocates to a sanatorium in the mountains, where she can rest her nerves somewhere quiet and cut off from the outside world. Toru writes her letters each week and visits her a few times, learning more about the roots of her emotional instability and getting to know her roommate, Reiko, a colorful middle-aged woman who has lived in the facility for seven years.
“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
Meanwhile, Toru keeps dispassionately up with his studies, works in a record store, and picks up women with his friend, Nagasawa, a curious character who only reads books by authors who have been dead for more than 30 years. He also befriends a bright, independent, and sexually liberated student at his university named Midori, and they have adventures drinking in the afternoon, watching porno movies, and singing songs while watching a fire from the roof of her family’s apartment.
There’s a bit of a love triangle between Naoko, Toru, and Midori. Toru is in love with Naoko and has promised to wait for her while she recovers, understanding that it could be years before she is well again. And yet, he’s also incredibly attracted to Midori, a vibrant and accessible young woman. I don’t often like reading about love triangles, and the portrayal of this one bothered me. Toru loves Naoko, but he doesn’t tell anyone about her — he only tells people that he’s in a relationship, but it’s complicated — and he sleeps with other women to satisfy his “needs,” and Midori has a boyfriend, but she’s always telling Toru how she wants him to lay her down on a big, comfy bed and take all her clothes off so that she can then tell him stop because she has a boyfriend and is very proper about those things. I don’t know if there’s a culture gap here, but this scenario didn’t seem realistic to me.
“Things like that happen all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and the lake are beautiful. So stop eating yourself up alive. Things will go where they’re supposed to go if you just let them take their natural course.”
Aside from the weird love triangle, I really love this book. This was my third time reading it all the way through, and it is one of my comfort reads. When I’m feeling upset, this is one of the books I can turn to and read a few pages of to feel better. It has a quiet, introspective, and warm feel that makes me feel calmer. Actually, reading it gives me a similar feeling to listening to the song it’s named after.
As with most Murakami books I’ve read, Norwegian Wood contains some really graphic sex scenes, at least one of which is very uncomfortable and a bit disturbing to read. If you’ve read Murakami before, you probably expect that, and I mention it because this is the book I recommend people start with when introducing themselves to Murakami’s books. Of the four I’ve read, this is the only one that is realistic (the others are surreal with supernatural elements), and it is the easiest to read and understand. It doesn’t have the aspects that make some of his other books more “difficult,” but it exposes the reader to Murakami’s writing style and some of his themes.
All in all, this is a really beautiful, quiet coming-of-age novel about first love, death, and choosing life.