Norwegian Wood was my first Murakami, and I’ve heard it’s a good place to start, especially for us readers who prefer contemporary over fantasy. Plus, in an interview with Timothée Chalamet, Harry Styles named it as his desert island book, so I was sure I picked a good one (and you can’t argue that logic!!).
From the back cover:
Toru, a 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 year before. As Naoko retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman. A magnificent coming-of-age story steeped in nostalgia, Norwegian Wood blends the music, the mood, and the ethos that were the sixties with a young man’s hopeless and heroic first love.
Murakami is often criticized by feminists for his blatant belittling of women, and just a few pages into Norwegian Wood, I understood why. It’s the constant references to Naoko’s beauty and size, emphasizing that Toru found her to be more beautiful after she lost weight (though she only lost weight due to severe depression after the death of her boyfriend). It’s not just these references towards the female characters, like Naoko and Midori, but it’s the fact that they are not made about the male characters in return. I’ve been spoiled by reading mostly female authors this year, and it’s these kinds of sexist character remarks that I haven’t missed. Though this bothered me, it didn’t necessarily take away from my enjoyment of the novel.
Beyond the slight misogyny on Murakami’s part, I really enjoyed Norwegian Wood (and I couldn’t stop humming the Beatles song in the time I read it). In terms of narration, Toru was a rather bland character, but though he serves as the narrator, it is difficult to determine, who is, in fact, the protagonist. The focus seemed more on the three leading ladies, Naoko, Midori, and Reiko, than on Toru himself. I’m tempted to say the book is hardly about Toru at all, but the women that come in and out of his life. Whether or not this was Murakami’s intention, it’s hard to say, but I really enjoyed this aspect to the novel, and the rather open-ended conclusion that follows. Norwegian Wood is a very tender story; the novel deals with difficult topics in a way that feels incredibly raw and emotional.
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
-Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
Realistic fiction with a few fantastical quirks makes Norwegian Wood the go-to novel for Murakami fans who struggle with overly magical narratives. I’m already looking forward to my next venture into the Murakami backlist.
Find this book on Goodreads.