Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I once had a girl, Or should I say she once had me ...

About Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: This stunning and elegiac novel by the author of the internationally acclaimed Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has sold over 4 million copies in Japan and is now available to American audiences for the first time. It is sure to be a literary event.

Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.

A poignant story of one college student's romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man's first, hopeless, and heroic love.

My two cents

I'm giving you fair warning: I'm a Murakami fan. Although I have to admit that this particular book is unlike what I've come to expect of Murakami. I was expecting a cat somewhere (and there is), something odd to happen (ok, odd but not with the magical realism touches), and maybe a romance with an older woman (not really). In other words, I didn't get any of the trademark Murakami from this read.

What I did get was a book that showcases Murakami's "younger" voice, a vulnerable side and an uncanny ability to tell a simple yet affecting story.

Now, open up the Beatles' Norwegian Wood, the obvious namesake of this novel, and revel in this love that's a throw back to the 1960s. Because at the heart of this sans cats and May-December romances, this is what it is: a love story between two young people. Their love is a strange one, however, borne out of the death of their best friend Kizuki.

This is what makes the story so poignant, so moving, and so unbearably sad. To be so young and to be touched and deeply affected by the hand of death, for me it's unthinkable or even blasphemous for twenty-somethings on the cusp of their lives to have to deal with death.

Toru and Naoko's teenage friendship pre-death seems typical enough. With Kizuki's death, loss and pain becoming their strange binding element, one can only expect a relationship wrought with pain. And so it was: Naoko is held back from truly living, becoming emotionally fragile and retreating from the world. Toru, too is held back, his budding friendship and potential love with the gregarious, sexually liberated Midori, is held at bay.

Throughout the book, we are constantly reminded of death, loss, illness, and the mental anguish that comes with these. All the characters that tromp through the book has been touched in some way. Naoko and Midori are polar opposites in their response to death - Naoko's retreat was brutal and complete; Midori, meanwhile, challenged herself to put herself out there. Toru was a strange one to me - nice but no-so-nice - but then I will let male readers read more into his actions. Reiko, Naoko's roomie-companion in the mountain retreat and later Toru's friend, was an interesting study of fragility and strength. Toru's friend Nagasawa and Nagasawa's girlfriend, both less significant characters, likewise reiterate Toru's constant struggle with loss.

Set in Japan in the 1960s, this book takes place during a time when the world was fired up with revolt and idealism. It is filled with descriptions of Tokyo City life and of Japan's beautiful mountainsides. Book lovers will enjoy references to Toru's reading fare (that too allude to death and loss) such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

And with this, I leave you the lyrics to Norwegian Wood

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me
She showed me her room, isn't it good, Norwegian Wood?

She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair

I sat on the rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"

She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath

And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian Wood?

Verdict: This is a beautifully told story.  I've read this three times already and each time I am just struck by its simplicity, the naïveté in voice in which it is told, and how profoundly sad this is. When I hear the song Norwegian Wood, I remember the incongruity of youth and idealism ... and sadness. May Reiko continue playing her guitar to Toru and Naoko.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall