by Haruki Murakami
Category: Fiction / General
389 pages; ISBN: ISBN 1 86046 818 7
Rating: 8/10 (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Vanessa Elliott
Supposedly a love story, there is nothing in this book that is cliched. The theme may not be new - an adolescent stumbling into adulthood, dodging relationship potholes and emotional traps. But, the minimalist style of short sentences and poignant punctuation makes every component an essential part in understanding the full story.
Originally written in Japanese, this version of Norwegian Wood is the first English translation to be approved by the author, for sale outside Japan. Unlike many writers, Haruki Murakami, exaggerates every detail of daily life. Initially you may wonder how the main character’s washing and ironing, a girl’s hairslide or the contents of a "box lunch" can be so symbolic? The answer you quickly discover is that the reader’s being asked to understand a Japanese society that, like the book runs on an orderly structure, perfectionism and attention to detail.
The characters, however, are less balanced. The story is the memory Toru Watanabe, the narrator, has of his student days in Tokyo of the 1960s. A song he hears on an aeroplane (Norwegian Wood by the Beatles!) forces him to recall a time twenty years before when his best friend killed himself. He then remembers the events that followed: his struggle to keep his best friend’s girlfriend, Naoko, from also taking her own life. His offer to Naoko of time, support and love to help her overcome her depression. And his own battle to find out whether his love for Naoko is real and enough to stop him acting on his feelings for another girl.
This book is not about innocent love in either tone or content. But nor does it sensationalise scenes of casual sex or revolutionary politics that provide the backdrop to the tale. Readers must be prepared to judge the characters’ feelings as much through the way they go about their lives as the way they describe their emotions.
Murakami’s style has been branded by some as "emotional minimalism" yet the characters and their experiences are never described without sensitivity, warmth and even humour. Left feeling neither hungry for more, or uncomfortably full, Norwegian Wood was perfectly balanced and an unforgettable read.