Synopsis: Boy meets girl. Boy commits suicide. Boy’s best friend falls in love with girl. Girl loses grasp on reality. Boy meets another girl. Metaphysical angst ensues.
My Take: The cover blurb of Norwegian Wood describes the novel thus:
“When 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.”
This could easily be off putting to my mind. Stores of teenaged first love and ‘impetuous young women’ set against cultural upheavals can easily cross over into the twee if not handled well by the author. However, this is anything but trash teen lit. Murakami’s prose throughout Norwegian Wood has an affecting, melancholic sensuality and the story arc is anything but formulaic. In fact, The Guardian’s review of this book describes Murakami’s writing as ‘gossamer’ which I think perfectly sums it up. As such, the ultimate impression left by the book is not one of teen-hormones ran amok, but of an otherworldly, dreamlike reminiscence. In fact, it has something of a Gatsbyesq quality to it in the way that it meditates on the nature of the past and how much of what has past is a part of you and how much you can escape from. This is really one of my favourite books and one that I have come back to on a number of occasions.
This was also the book that first got me into Murakami as a writer, which is ironic, because it’s really not illustrative of his work. Norwegian Wood is a straight narrative and forgoes the more fantastical quirks of his other works (there are no talking cats anywhere to be seen in this book). It’s easily the most accessible of Murakami’s novels and made him a super-star of Japanese fiction when it one of the highest selling books in the nation’s history. Apparently Murakami strongly resented the attention at the time of the book’s release, and you can understand a degree of frustration at being fated for a book that doesn’t really reflect the core of your writing. That being said, probably as a result of the prominence that Norwegian Wood has afforded him, Murakami has been able to carve out a very successful career for himself writing pretty well whatever he wants (however bizarre). So there are some upsides to success I guess.
“Each day the sun would rise and set, the flag would be raised and lowered. Each Sunday I would have a date with my dead friend’s girl. I had no idea what I was doing or what I was going to do.”
A further highlight of Norwegian Wood are the exquisite different covers that the book has been released with. You can browse through them at a dedicated page on the publisher’s website.
On a final note, thanks to the loving thoughtfulness of JJ, I have a beautiful first edition of this novel that comes in two small red and green miniature books designed for ease of reading on public transport. A treasured possession.