Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – book review

By Emma Brooks

About the author:

Haruki Murakami is a famous Japanese author who has gained plenty of praise for his work. He was born in 1949 in Kyoto, and both his parents taught Japanese literature. However, he is said to be greatly influenced by Western culture, reading novels by American authors as he grew up, and this distinguishes him from other Japanese authors in his style. He wrote his first novel Hear the Wind Sing at the age of 29, and later wrote Norwegian Wood in 1987. The publishing of Norwegian Wood was a major breakthrough in his career.

About the book:

There is something special about Japanese novels and the way they are written that really sets them apart. The style and the themes that are covered are often somewhat different to those you would find in a regular European or American novel. The way in which the novels are written come across as gentle, posed and of great reflection. Murakami’s book is much the same. He tackles the themes of suicide, love and sexuality in such a collected manner that none of the events are startling; rather they make you reflect on the greater meaning behind them: why would something like that happen?

If you like Japanese culture and Japan, whether you have been before or are just eager to discover more, then Japanese novels are also good for this. We are often plunged into the Japanese culture, and discover cities, villages, and day-to-day lives as they are described through the novel. Murakami describes to us Tokyo, student life in this city, countryside further out and other places, taking us on a trip through Japan.

The story is one of tragedy, scarred by suicide and failed romance. It seems natural that Murakami tackle the subject, considering that suicide is a significant and recurring problem in Japan. Our main character Toru Watanabe loses several people close to him to suicide, and he is doomed to live with their memories and suffer their loss. We follow him in his day to day life as a student in Tokyo, learning about his flatmate – who is a tad OCD but helps him to remain clean, unlike other students – and meeting his other friend Nagasawa, who takes him on a couple of wild debaucheries.

Toru has two main loves in his life and has to live with the fact that he cannot reconcile them both. One of them belongs to his past and reminds him of his best friend who killed himself, whilst the other one is part of his present life as a student and is trying to bring him back to reality. He is torn between both women and as a result, both love stories are quite unsuccessful.

He comes across as a rather clumsy young man, who doesn’t know how to describe or relate his affection to these women, and instead hangs around waiting for them to come back to him. He spends a lot of time moping and doesn’t realise what he’s doing wrong, simply because he lacks a basic understanding of what holds relationships together.

Despite the fact that Toru’s life is marked by death and unsuccessful relationships, his story is nonetheless a beautiful one. It seems as if there is a profound meaning behind his life and what happens to him, that we are supposed to understand and use as a lesson. The book may be marked by tragic events, yet the story also seems to be well balanced and does not leave us feeling utterly depressed. If you are intrigued by what Japanese novels are like, then Norwegian Wood is a good place to start.

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