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.
This review can also be found on Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell-blog.
Let me preface this by saying I know nothing of Japanese culture. I might recognise a stereotype—emphasis on the word might—but that’s it. So, if any point you feel like raving about how I just don’t get it, you’re probably right. I don’t. Instead I’m going to ask a few stupid questions and concentrate on the things I do know—like what I consider good storytelling.
Believe it or not, there was a time when I liked quiet novels, I still do, but it’s a rare book that hits me just right at the right time and changes my world. I kept wishing Norwegian Wood would be one of those books, but it was not to be.
Toru is a middle aged man on a plane and hears a familiar song. Suddenly Toru is a young man studying in university in Tokio and he’s in love with a girl who never loved him. Toru has friends, good friends and bad friends. Toru has sex a lot. Toru is lost.
This is a young man’s coming of age story, and this is a book about sex and suicide. Not necessarily in that order. I’m aware of the description that extols Murakami’s lively representation of the 1960’s Japan and the fascinating mix of east and admiration of all things American. Those things are true too, but unfortunately the majority of this book isn’t about what life was like in 1960’s; majority of this book is about an eighteen-to-twenty-year-old-man wanting to get laid. And when Toru Watanabe isn’t getting his leg over, the girls are talking about how wet they were with him or with someone else. It’s off putting to say the least.
And then there are the suicides. I think I counted four of them and that just made me think the author doesn’t know how to pick his moments. Or is suicide a huge problem in Japan? Are masses of young adults killing themselves there? If they are, this isn’t the book to highlight and address that problem. This isn’t a book that encourages people to stop and think what needs to be changed for kids to stop killing themselves. Not only did Murakami fail to pick and choose, he managed to trivialise a very serious issue.
I’m not going to dignify the psychological break recovery portrayal with a comment.
Then there’s the romance aspect. With better characterisations I might agree that it was well done. There was a love triangle of sorts but it wasn’t about choosing the first shiny love of a character’s life but about choosing what was best for them in the long run. However, it was boring and it was trite. I could see the ending coming from a long way and the only thing that could’ve save the book and its rating for me would have been the how.
Had Toru’s epiphany and personal growth happened differently, I might have ended up liking this book, because that’s what I kept hoping for. I can see why others have liked the story. I liked the writing and in theory I liked the message. It’s not that long ago that I was going through some of these things and learning to be an adult, but even then I had my priorities sorted differently. The shame of failing in school or life is nothing compared to the shame of hurting my family by hurting myself—like taking away my own life or running away. I had this figured out by the time I was twelve, so I have little sympathy for adults still lost on this issue.
Sometimes people fall and need help to pick themselves up again. It’s a part of life, but I don’t think we should romanticise it.