Ignorant of Haruki Murakami, I wondered though BookTube one week and watched several interviews that perked my interest. I love a slow magnetic character driven novel, and feel a great affinity for Japanese art. There is a cultural paradigm that touches everything from linguistics to religion that I find very close to my own outlook on life. I remember talking with an ex who was a linguist, he went on at length on how Latin based languages divide and label things into parts which is reflected in western medicine, while most Asian languages are more global which led to traditional eastern medicine. It created the difference between seeing the body as broken parts versus seeing the body as an unbalance whole. That conversation always stuck with me and I often see hints of a Shamanistic or Confucius past in modern movies, but I hadn’t taken the dive into Japanese literature. When I did more research, I realized that I had listened to an audiobook by the author years ago. When I listened to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I was training for an ultra-marathon and remembered it fondly.
I ordered the paperback version on Amazon and waited anxious to try out this new author. Published in 1987, Norwegian Wood made him so famous in Japan that he left the country; I had high expectations. When I first picked up the novel, I was disappointed in the paper quality. I like to read while reclining and it kept closing and flopping around. This may seem like a small thing but I do want to put that out there. Often, the quality of a book can make me put it down if it effects the reading experience negatively. That said, after the first paragraph of reading Norwegian Wood, I could not put it down and it took ink well.
The story is set in set in 1969 and follows the Toru Watanabe as he goes to university after a painful experience at the end of High School. He falls in love with, Naoko, a girl he’s know for years who is also struggling because of their shared past. It touches on the student revolution at the end of the 1960’s, sexual liberation and metal illness. One thing that is commonly brought up in reviews is how women are portrayed in the book. If you have a low tolerance for questionable behavior around sex, this book may disturb you. That said, this is important in the history of Japanese literature and captures the feel and smell of the time.
Personally, I found the sexuality in the book uncomfortable, refreshing, young and honest. It’s rendered in a surprisingly blunt way that is devoid of common cliches. I remember being in similar situations in the early ’90s and the book doesn’t portray male sexuality any better than female sexuality. Lot’s of conflicted emotion, bad behavior and confusion abound. I don’t think Murakami is a sexist pig, I actually found the writing thought provoking, and it posed complex questions.
There are three main women in the book. They each represent something very district about the changes in women during the late 60’s. Naoko is the most distantly drawn to me. I enjoyed her and felt her deeply but she wasn’t fully breathing to me. She felt almost like a symbol. At first, I considered this a failing of the book, but later I remembered my love at that age and how that disaster never left me. There is something about the idealism of youth that creates these strong “loves” and “attachments” with people that reflect something other than who they are. In my experience they border on obsession. Her being a symbol was very real in that respect. The second woman made me frustrated to no end. I wanted to throw the book at times, and to me, she represented that late teen early 20 angst during a time of social upheaval. The last woman, I loved dearly, and she felt the most real of them. You can tell that Murakami related to her in some special way by the delicacy with which she was drawn.
To say I loved this book is an understatement. I’ve wanted to review it for a couple weeks but needed to let my thoughts simmer. Even after several weeks, my thoughts are incomplete. If you are a writer, by the paper copy. I did a lot of note-taking while reading and it taught me several things that I hope to apply to my own novel. I highly recommend this, but I feel it’s a book that wants to be read slowly and it does make you uncomfortable at times.
I did a review the day after I finished reading the book and you can watch it below