The pain of growing up is the main character in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Woods. Toru Watanabe finds himself at a crossways, having to choose either the path of the past or the road to the future. As he loses friends who choose to stay seventeen or twenty forever Toru walks on, hesitantly as he may be at times. His quiet life as a university student in Tokyo changes when he runs into Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend who died of suicide. Toru and Naoko build a strong friendship which involves much walking and little talking. Tied together by the bond of a tragic death, the two seem to form a small island of grief and solace, peaceful but sad. While he manages to adapt to life after loss, introspective Naoko despairs, retreats from the world and finally is admitted to a sanatorium. Lonely, once again, Toru finds a friend in the quirky, vivacious and confident Midori. But devoted to Naoko as he is, Toru struggles to choose between death and the past or life and the future. He cannot let go of the desire to save Naoko, even when it becomes clear to see that she cannot be saved. How can you grow up and move on if your loved ones don’t? In long conversations brimming with nostalgia and a longing for something that might resemble hope, the protagonists reveal their pasts, fears and dreams until – in an unresolved ending – they ask themselves and the reader “where are you now?”
I have mixed feelings about this book. Norwegian Wood brought Murakami to literary superstardom and I have read so many raging reviews that I went into reading it with very high expectations. As is so often the case when I start a book on such a premise, the first third left me unimpressed. Somehow the language felt unwieldy, as if it didn’t come natural to the author. For my taste, the dialogues lacked subtlety and as a result seemed inauthentic. Often I thought something would be a great passage in a non-fiction book, a memoir, an essay, but in a novel it felt out of place. This, however, should not distract that Murakami’s writing is beautiful. He excels at creating an atmosphere and provoking emotions; descriptions are detailed but never feel redundant. As long as it isn’t direct speech, Murakami’s use of language feels like a gentle breeze, easily carrying the reader through the pages. But then the meditations that seem way to grand and polished to be spoken by twenty year-olds and thereby hinder the reading flow even though they are packed with wisdom and warmth. I realise this review sounds much more negative than I am feeling towards this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the loving descriptions of landscapes, moods and people. Norwegian Wood felt like a true exercise in observation. Murakami’s delicacy, or tactfulness, in exploring depression and suicide are commendable. His capacity to awaken true nostalgia, a longing for something fictional in the reader is impressive. And much of the characters’ personalities and interactions is charming. One aspect that did leave me quite unimpressed was the characterisation of the female characters. Even though three of four protagonists were women, their descriptions seems often stereotypical and always essentially sexualised. I have Murakami’s short story collection Men Without Women at home waiting to be read and am curious to see how the female characters are realised there.
Though perhaps not as perfectly executed (to my taste) as I had expected from this master of literature, I can see why Murakami enthuses and fascinates so many of my fellow bookworms and I am looking forward to reading more books by him.