"Norwegian Wood," my first Murakami

After hearing wonderful things about Haruki Murakami, I picked up a copy of Norwegian Wood last year to introduce myself to this popular author. I chose the book because of the hype from the film and because of the Beatles-inspired title, but I wish I hadn’t chose this book as my first Murakami. I really wanted to love this book, but it fell short of my high expectations and disappointed me. I was looking for a passionate story about love and death and post-adolescent growing pains, and what I got was a dirge-like, slow-moving narrative with boring characters I couldn’t really care about.

norwegian-wood-reviewNorwegian Wood tells the story of young Toru, a reserved college student still healing from the suicide of his best friend. He reconnects with Naoko, his best friend’s girlfriend, also clinically depressed and dealing with her boyfriend’s suicide. The grief of the pair manifests itself through a casual sexual encounter and an incongruously deep emotional connection that feels superficial. Besides the death of their friend, there is nothing else joining these two in their professed love, and the depression they both exhibit take away from the poignance of their relationship. Still, this is not a novel about recovering from tragedy: this is a novel about the pain of depression. And it definitely hurts to read about, but not in a cathartic, enjoyable way. 

Toru’s narration falls stagnant so many times as he recounts his isolation from his peers and the pain he feels about Naoko’s depression. The issue here is that Murakami failed to creatively elevate Toru’s emotional state in any way that would resound to the reader. He is just depressed, Naoko is just depressed, and that’s it. The novel is pure pathos. It may be realistic, but it isn’t that interesting. And it’s exhausting.

It’s also quite predictable, with the possibility of suicide present throughout and looming ever closer to each of the three main characters. Also present is a half-hearted attempt at a love triangle, or maybe just an attempt to give Toru a bit of fun in his dreary life. When Naoko seeks psychological help and moves into a clinic, Toru meets a sexually liberated co-ed named Midori and struggles to make himself understood with her, even as she finds herself falling in love with him. Midori is the only character with any kind of liveliness in this novel, but even her character is one-dimensional, useful as a foil to Naoko and as a growing experience for Toru, but ultimately flat. (And I won’t give away any spoilers here, but even she finds herself succumbing to the all-encompassing theme of this novel: depression and its psychological consequences.)

These three characters, Toru and his two women Naoko and Midori, are as interesting as life-size cardboard cutouts. Yes, it’s sad that Naoko is clinically depressed and that Toru is in love with two women, but he also does basically nothing in the novel besides lament that he cannot save not only himself, but also either of the two women he cares about. There are some moments of touching sadness, but that’s all the book is really, just moments of sadness strung together. Murakami’s writing is subtle and beautiful at times, and I can definitely see that he’s talented, but this novel falls short of brilliant. To allude to the title, it has all the ambiance and emotion of the song, but it’s a superficial version: it has none of the gravity that makes “Norwegian Wood” (the song) so powerful to listen to, so addictive and poignant.

I’ve heard The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is much better, so I won’t be discouraged by my first foray into the world of Murakami. I’ve also read that Murakami didn’t understand why Norwegian Wood was so popular and that he wouldn’t like to be remembered for it, which I take as confirmation that he didn’t like it very much either. On my reading list is Murakami’s 1Q84, which comes highly recommended by some important people (read: my friends) so I’m hoping that novel restores my faith in Murakami, which was almost shattered by this sad little book.

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Murakami, H. (2000) Norwegian Wood. New York, NY: Random House.

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  • Your review is brutally frank! I like it. I was wondering if I should read this book. Thanks to your review, I will stay away from it. A few years ago I read ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’, It is a ‘kind of memoir’. I will stay with the good impression that book created on me.

    • Thank you for your feedback! While I was disappointed with this book, I am glad I read it and Iook forward to reading other, better Murakamis in the future. My advice if you do read any Murakami is to start with something else and see where he takes you!

  • I’m glad this hasn’t completely put you off Murakami. I haven’t read Norwegian Wood, but his books that I have read have been beautiful and refreshing and it would be a shame to be put off the whole symphony by one bum note.

    • I feel the same and I’m very much looking forward to his others.

  • It’s funny, I really enjoyed this book! My first Murakami was “Kafka on the Shore,” which I pretty much hated. I guess it just means that Murakami is an eclectic writer capable of appealing to different types of readers at different times, no?

    • I agree! That’s a great way to phrase it. I also have a hardwired impatience for the theme of depression in literature, and this novel was full of it! But no doubt Murakami is gifted and is an author I’m eager to explore!

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