My journey to discover Murakami until now has been in a backwards chronological order. I first read After Dark (2007), then Sputnik Sweetheart (2001) and now Norwegian Wood (2000).* In my own twisted way, my love for this author has blossomed and continues to get stronger with each book I read. There are days that call out for a Murakami kind of book to be present in my life, and on such days, a rare trip to the bookstore cannot be avoided.
Norwegian Wood sucked me in right from the beginning. Toru Watanabe is 19-something and hopelessly in love with Naoko. She used to date Kizuki, who was also Toru’s best friend, before his death. This common bond brings the two together, but not for long. Naoko is haunted by demons of her past, and is unable to keep up with the reality of the outside world. When she disappears from Toru’s life, he is forced to move on. Although he is essentially a loner, he finds a friend in Nagasawa who helps Toru explore his sexuality by going on random dates with girls. But Toru also has a female friend, Midori, who has her own demons, but has the will to go on with her life in spite of them. Caught in the midst of love, sex, music, education, independence, and a burgeoning youth, Norwegian Wood spins a tale around Toru’s heartache and we the readers watch mesmerized from the sidelines.
Norwegian Wood has many of Murakami’s classic elements – there’s a lot of attention given to Western music and culture, there are characters that are haunted by ghosts of memories and incidents past, people go missing, there’s a little fantasy mixed in with reality. But the book is also simpler than the other Murakami books I’ve read, and I enjoyed that. The plot is more or less linear and the few characters make a big impact. Calling Norwegian Wood a love story might be doing it an injustice, but it is also an intrinsic part of the novel. And so is death. And friendship. And what it means to be young.
While there are days when I feel like I’ve left my teenage and twenties far away, reading Norwegian Wood reminded me that my early twenties were a mere 10 years ago. That angst, that feeling of helplessness, that need to do something valuable, that yearning to fall in love and stay there, that unbearable ache that a heart can feel – all of that was just within reach, and I felt it through Toru, Naoko, and Midori. This is a coming of age story, and it is a story that, perhaps with lesser intensity, many of us experience. For that, Norwegian Wood is a must read.