BOOK REVIEW: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian WoodNorwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Norwegian Wood is about a quintessentially normal and likable guy named Toru Watanabe who has a thing for women who range between eccentric and completely off their rockers. The story is delivered as a flash back as an adult Watanabe mulls over his college days, during which all of these relationships took place.

At the center of his various relationships is his love for Naoko, who had been the girlfriend of Watanabe’s high school best friend until said friend committed suicide. Naoko is a beautiful girl in a fragile state–haunted by her former boyfriend’s suicide and probably a little unstable of her own nature. On the other hand, Watanabe begins a platonic relationship with another girl, Midori, who is sane, but a bit of a wild child and not devoid of her own neuroses. While, of the two, Midori is better for him, he cannot bring himself to take their relationship to the next level as long as Naoko is around—even though Naoko is institutionalized. A third woman, Hatsumi, is dating Watanabe’s college best friend, and she seems to represent the sweet, stable woman who Watanabe doesn’t seem to attract. Incidentally, Hatsumi eventually commits suicide. [Warning: this book is rife with suicide and probably has the highest rate of suicide of any novel I’ve ever read—fortunately it’s a relatively small cast of characters and so this amounts to only a few deaths.]

The character development and story are both excellent. Though I will say the character of Naoko is underdeveloped, but I suspect that is on purpose. I couldn’t tell whether Watanabi had reason to be so madly in love with her, or whether that was his curse. (I suspected the latter.) In contrast, Midori is tremendously likable, and– despite her kookiness–she is the kind of person almost anybody would be drawn to at least as a friend—though some might find it trying to be in an extended romantic relationship with her.

Murakami intersperses humor into this book with its overall somber tone. A lot of this is in the form of dialogue between Watanabe and Midori, or Watanabe and Reiko (Reiko is Naoko’s roommate at the institution and is an older woman for whom Watanabe holds a measure of affection as well.) (Among my favorite quotes is [paraphrasing], “I don’t like being alone. No one likes being alone. I just hate being disappointed.”) These flourishes of humor both add to the readability and the realism of the story.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who enjoys literary fiction. Not that it’s hard to digest literary fiction. It’s very readable, but if you need something beyond realism to hold your attention, this is probably not the book for you. Unlike some of Murakami’s speculative fiction, this work is quite centered in realism. [Though, it does have a fairly high body count.]

There was a movie adaptation made a few years back. I haven’t seen it, and so couldn’t tell how closely it follows the novel, but from the trailer suspect it’s as close as can be expected.

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