Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Wood of the Norwegian Variety

I love books. And I love the Beatles. So, naturally, a book that combines the two is my idea of perfection... that and a really good slice of flourless chocolate torte. But I digress... I was recently introduced by a dear friend of mine to the works of Haruki Murakami. Other than poetry and several non-fiction works, I had not delved into the realm of Japanese fiction until I began reading Murakami's books.

Published in Japan in 1987, "Norwegian Wood" was the book that propelled Murakami into the pop-culture lime light. After reading this book, I can certainly understand why. Like the Beatles song, "Norwegian Wood" is mysterious yet revealing, sad yet sweet, lovely yet scaring. This book leaves an aftertaste similar to that of the song from which it is named - one that lingers in your mouth for days after that last bite but whose flavor cannot truly be identified.

The main character, Toru Watanabe, is 37 years of age when the story begins, but the Beatles song brings him back to the time of his college days as a young man grappling with the ever-present "loss of innocence" archetype. Like the narrator of the song, Watanabe has a girl, or should I say, she once had him? (Sorry, had to sort of quote the song at least once in this review.) Naoko is the intriguing waif of a leading female. She and Watanabe are forever connected, and effected, by Kizuki, a mutual friend, whom Naoko dated since childhood and Watanabe considered his best friend. When Kizuki takes his life at the young age of 17, Naoko and Watanabe are both impacted more than they even know, which continues to reveal itself throughout the novel.

Norwegian Wood is indeed a love story, but a love story like one you have probably never read before. True, many love stories are complicated, but this one is complicated in an entirely different way. Watanabe and Naoko are tied together by a love so deep it cannot quite be reached after all. Naoko's depression puts a continual block on the blossoming of the relationship, and when she checks herself into an unusual clinic in the mountains, things really begin to change for her and Watanabe.

When Watanabe make the acquaintance of Midori, a fiery young student at his university, his life begins to transform even more. Midori brings a sense of spontaneity and vibrancy to his life, which is extremely different from the tender yet torn love Naoko cannot fully share with him. The love triangle that forms, if it can really be called a triangle, is both touching and, I hate to admit it, frustrating. You think you know the perfect choice for Watanabe, but then something will happen, and your feelings have changed entirely. The book, in essence, "messes with" your feelings in a similar fashion.

As most male leads in Murakami's works, Watanabe seems to constantly be surrounded by simultaneously wise and fragile women, with the exception of his gallivanting college dorm friend. Another woman who has a dramatic affect on Watanabe's life is Naoko's roommate at the clinic. She not only enlightens Watanabe, in many senses of the word, but also serves as a liaison between him and Naoko. The fact that she plays "Norwegian Wood" on the guitar, and it is Naoko's favorite song, is also not a coincidence.

Like all of Murakami's male narrarators, Watanabe is a surprisingly ordinary young man. He may occasionally drink too much, but his taste in music is solid, as well as reflective of the times (1968). His favorite book is The Great Gatsby, which many young people going through the major changes in life claim as well, and his daily routine is basic and uneventful. But his entire world is blown apart by both the death of Kizuki and even more so by the increasing presence of Naoko in his life. This seemingly too ordinary young man is thrown into a whirl wind of events that carry you just as quickly through the book and leave you feeling both breathless yet strangely exhilarated at the end.

This review has already gotten way too long, and I think the topics jump all over the place. I apologize for my lack of structure, but I feel this review reflects the book Norwegian Wood, at least somewhat. Norwegian Wood has its own special type of structure, and it works incredibly well with the themes and messages of the book. Murakami's writing will intrigue you yet terrify you, and that, my friends, is one fantastic way to read a book.


At 10:54 AM, Blogger Me said...


Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. I've been getting some really inspiring emails from people. As SHELTER gets support, I can't tell you how much I appreciate people sharing their opinions of the work.

And kudos for keeping Hemingway in the hearts and minds of the blogverse.

Each 1, Teach 1,

Aggressive Films - NYC


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