Thursday, February 24, 2011

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

As I seem to be doing fairly often these days, I started reading this book not knowing exactly what I was getting into. Sure, I had read the excerpt on the back, but I somehow feel like it doesn’t do the book justice. Here’s what it says:

“When he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love, Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. Immediately he is transported back almost twenty years to his student days in Tokyo, adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire- to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marches into his life and he has to choose between the future and the past.”

True enough, those are the things that happen in the book. I could’ve rambled on for several paragraphs attempting to explain the plot, but that’s a better summary than what I would’ve come up with. But the best parts of this book are the things the plot summary can’t describe. This is a book that really sucked me in, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to describe it in an entirely coherent way. I feel like I can’t look at it from the outside, so it’s going to be hard to structure any kind of analysis. This may have to be a bit more free form than is typical of the reviews on this blog. Let’s just see how it works out.

First of all, the characters. There aren’t that many central characters, but each one of them feels incredibly real. The author also manages to do this without making them feel like “typical” people. Toru, the main character and narrator, isn’t unusual in any particular way, but he doesn’t feel generic. Naoko is, as she would describe herself, “deeply flawed” but very human. Midori is just all kinds of eccentric. The only character you don’t get to know particularly well is Kizuki, Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend. But this makes plenty of sense; he exists only as a memory that Toru and Naoko share. Near the beginning of the story, when he and Toru are nineteen, Kizuki commits suicide without any known motive. Kizuki is something of a blank space, but his death leaves a deep and lasting mark on Naoko and Toru.

As for the plot, it doesn’t feel nearly as dramatic as the excerpt on the back of the book makes it sound (Casual sex! Passion! Desire!). The events are almost everyday; it’s the life of a young man who is drifting through youth in a difficult time. Some exceptional things happen, but the story is more about relationships and how they shape a person’s life. By killing himself, Kizuki injures Naoko and Toru in ways they may not be able to recover from.

What stuck with me throughout the book was a strong undercurrent of emotion. The characters don’t bounce back and forth between ecstasy and misery (once again, not a hugely melodramatic book), but every time I started reading I would fall into a very particular mood. It was sort of a melancholy tinged with beautiful and sometimes painful moments. I am a sucker for books and movies that engage me emotionally, and this one did, perhaps on a somewhat unhealthy level. Naoko’s mental health is not so great, to put it lightly, and you feel it in all her interactions with Toru. Since the greater part of this book is about Naoko and Toru, and Toru’s thoughts about Naoko when they aren’t together, there’s sort of a fog of depression over the whole thing. The more time I had spent reading the book, the longer it took for me to shake off a vague feeling of sadness when I stopped. I think the author’s treatment of the struggle of coming to terms with mental illness and lasting wounds really struck a chord with me.

Once again, I don’t feel I’ve done a particularly good job of describing this book. It felt almost like its own world to me, and when I try to talk about it, it’s as if I’m on the inside trying to look out and see the whole thing at once. Which really isn’t possible. But I would like to say that I found it incredibly beautiful and moving. I’m thinking I’ll read it again rather than moving on to my next book. I would absolutely recommend it.

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