As my more observant readers will probably have guessed, this post is a review of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. However, before I get around to actually discussing the book, I would like to both explain and apologise for my absence from blogging over the past few months. Sadly, it’s been largely due to lots of very boring exams. I have the unfortunate problem of being unable to read anything new whilst revising for tests, so resort to old favourites I know very well, and thus don’t really have to concentrate on what I’m reading when I’m already feeling somewhat tired. I’ve also delayed this return to blogging slightly as I’ve just been happily relaxing and enjoying my extended, post-exam Summer holidays, including a two week trip to Florida. Speaking of which, before I get on with the book review you’re actually here to read, I’ll say this: if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you NEED to vist the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando. I last visted in 2013- when only the ‘Hogsmeade’ section of the park was open- and it was incredible then. However, the new addition of Diagon Alley has taken the themepark to another level! It’s so realistic that one feels like they’re actually walking through their favourite scenes from the book, and taking the Hogwarts Express between the two parks is just amazing. But anyway… fangirling over… I suppose I ought to start the review now!
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Vintage Books
Published: 1987 (this edition 2000)
A book I’ve been excited to read for a while, Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood tells the story of Toru Watanabe’s life as a student in 1960s Tokyo. It may sound like a rather typical tale of drugs and debauchery (which in some ways it rather disappointingly is), yet Watanabe’s situation is complicated by the fact he has fallen for his dead best friend’s girlfriend Naoko. To make matters worse, she is receiving treatment in a mental asylum when he meets the equally appealing Midori, and is forced to choose between the two women. The results of this are unfortunate, yet not entirely unexpected- a statement which sums up many of the events in this novel. I enjoyed the book, and found it to be a pleasantly genteel if a little morbid holiday read, but found it quite predictable. Moreover, despite the beautiful narrative giving the novel an almost dreamlike quality, it failed to move me or make as big as an impression on me as I had expected.
I think part of the reason I felt a little detached from this novel lies with the characters. Although he is perfectly pleasant, and unlucky enough to be deserving of some sympathy, I found Watanabe to be quite a stereotypical ‘dreamy young student’ character. Despite Murakami’s efforts to make his protagonist unique, he feels very much like the characters (such as Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye or Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower) of other authors who have gone down the same route. In the end, I began to feel somewhat indifferent towards the character, although I did enjoy some of his rather philosophical musings about life, love and everything inbetween. Ultimately, however, he just proved too much of a daydreamer, drifter and general waste of space for me to feel particularly invested in him. As for Naoko, despite her mental health problems, I regret to say I felt very little sympathy for her. I felt Murakami made the character a little too odd and quiet, meaning the reader knows so little about her that it is difficult for us to emphasise with her, or indeed understand Watanabe’s seemingly endless fascination with her. I much preferred her sanatorium room-mate Reiko, due to her fascinating backstory, and the sassy Midori. As for why I liked Midori so much, I think it was because she was as odd as Naoko, but in a loud, brash way that meant one was amused by her and felt a geuine connection with the character. Even after discovering her very odd, and decidedly distant, relationship with her family, readers will find themselves making excuses for Midori’s odd behaviour, and will still genuinely like the character. I was every bit as fascinated with her as I was bored by Naoko, and was disappointed that her relationship with Watanabe was not developed further. She and Reiko are definitely the only characters I can say I honestly liked.
As for the way the novel is written, I have to concede that the description was beautiful, perfectly evoking images of a fascinating part of the world and the fabulous, psychedelic culture of the 1960s. As a Beatles fan, I also liked the way many references to popular culture were interwoven into the storyline. Another thing I enjoyed was the way Murakami meticulously ensured every character had a detailed backstory, and a way of justifying many of the decisions they had previously made. My only issue with said backstories was that I found certain aspects of Reiko’s account of her past to be both unrealistic and unnecessarily sexually explicit. Shortly into the novel, it became apparent Murakami intended to use vulgar descriptions of sex as a way of shocking his readers and enticing them to read on, but I still was not prepared for one particularly indecent incident involving a thirteen year old girl. It felt intrusive and unnecessary, and I cringed at the idea of a child being used to shock readers in such a manner.
Apart from expressing my dislike of the sexualised scenes and distance from the characters, there is not a great deal I can say about this novel. Sadly, that’s because I found myself feeling thoroughly underwhelmed. I had expected a touching novel about growing older and sad events leading to sudden maturity, but what I actually received was a mediocre romance between characters I cared little for. Norwegian Wood certainly is not the moving, coming of age tale I had expected, and the only ‘feeling’ it enticed in me was frustration that Watanabe remained so fascinated by Naok0- a shell of a girl- and ignored the fascinating Midori. Moreover, I feel the main event of the book, possibly intended to be a ‘twist’ is less than shocking, considering I guessed what would happen to Naoko after just two to three chapters. If you’re someone who enjoys a ‘weepy’ romance this book might not disappoint, but for someone looking for a coming of age tale or insight into Japanese culture as I was, it’s more than a little disappointing. Whilst it was not a bad novel, this was far from the poetic, moving tale and future favourite I had anticipated.
Rating: 🌟🌟🌟 (3/5)
‘Those were strange days, now that I look back at them. In the midst of life, everything revolved around death’- Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood