Book Review: Norwegian Wood

About 30 years too late to the party but considering I wasn’t even born when the book was published, I think I have a relatively good excuse.

*This review contains spoilers*

The first emotion reading this book was mostly surprise at how much sexual content there was. I had picked up the book having heard many online recommendations but I didn’t actually know what it was about. Having grown up with a relatively skewed perception on Japan and its culture (my teens were mainly spent consuming anime and manga), I had embarked on this journey with the assumption this would sit in the more conservative vein (I couldn’t possibly tell you why). One could take a look at the one line synopsis found on Google and Wikipedia and immediately tell me I was wrong. Oh so wrong. I do not recommend reading on packed public transport. 

After my initial mild surprise though, it made for an interesting read. The two main themes of loss/grief/death and understanding sexuality are explored throughout the book, although I would argue the second one is much more thoroughly explored than the latter and yet less poignant. Each of the main characters deal with loss at some point in their narrative and each show various ways of reacting and dealing with it (apart from perhaps Nagasawa who loses Hatsumi but isn’t actually shown how he deals with the loss. Presumably he continues as unsinkable as ever). There is a lot of sex that occurs supposedly as the novel is based in the 60s with most of the characters in hitting their second decade whilst at university and we see how each character varies in their attitude towards it and the effect it has on them. 

This is the first work from Murakami that I’ve ever read so I can only guess that the ending was intended to be less than conclusive, poetic even. Although, I feel since the novel started with a 37 year old Watanabe consciously mentioning that he’s writing this flashback into a book, for it to also end this way seems like a major oversight and personally I found it unsatisfactory. The trouble with reading translations is that you can never be 100% sure that the words and nuance is being conveyed how the author intended. Although being bilingual, I understand that it is nigh on impossible to ever fully translate into another language, particularly from Japanese to English as they are so different. This point however does not obviously cover whatever happens as part of the plot – the influence of the translator is surely only limited to the vibe given from the choice of words. I just would hope that in Japanese it would be presented as a better fitting ending. The pacing of the book also seemed rushed towards the end. It was probably paced so that it produces a climatic feel – to me it just felt a bit rushed. And I’m not going to talk about the tragic if convenient event of Naoko’s suicide just as the protagonist is agonising whether he is able to be with Midori. There are things that can be excused as artistic licence to an extent, but it doesn’t stop me harumphing about it. 

My biggest concern with the book is that everyone who featured in Watanabe’s life excerpt didn’t seem to have any function other than to hold a particular stereotype with no actual character development. Even Naoko, who is the one other character present from the beginning doesn’t really ever have any development apart from fulfilling the inevitable at the end. I guess some would argue that Murakami perhaps is using the other characters as a larger metaphor for the protagonist’s journey through the book. Naoko holds an unseverable bond from his childhood (until at the end when it is severed in the most final of ways) which means she has an immeasurable influence on Watanabe, Midori holds the his hope for the future (more on this in a sec), Reiko represents his closure for Naoko’s death and also conveniently bringing to full circle his long process of coming to terms with Kizuki’s suicide. Nagasawa represents the personality that Watanabe could be but isn’t. Okay, we get it. Watanabe is capable for emotional attachment that Nagasawa isn’t. Woop de do. He still manages to be an arsehole in a number of different ways. One thing I do have to get off my chest is the number of times he achieves climax with either Naoko or Midori in the book, where is the one mention that he even reciprocated the favour? I mean, I know it was written in the 80s but surely someone as perverted as Midori wouldn’t be satisfied with being a simple object of male gratification.

Whilst we’re on the subject of Midori, as wonderfully quirky she is, I can’t help but feel she would just be better off elsewhere. Not with her existing boyfriend who I’m confused as to why they’re together in the first place (although looking back on my own romantic history, I suppose it does happen), but with someone who is perhaps more emotionally available than Tory “infatuated with his dead best friend’s girlfriend” Watanabe. Certain aspects of Midori’s personality has been caricaturised so much she becomes the fetish of Watanabe’s choice of women. If Naoko is the delicate black hole that sucks all happy feelings out of the room, Midori is the exact opposite complete with spreading her legs in front of her dead dad’s portrait at the altar. Caricaturisation isn’t something that is new but I just wonder what the point of it was for it to be taken to this extreme. The author makes some attempts when she’s first introduced to flesh out her character with attributes like her cooking ability (and her stubbornness in saving for the utensils) as well as her job as a map fact writer. These are sadly all lost when she strongly features towards the end of the book as she and Watanabe finally confess their feelings. By this point all she embodies as a personality is her constant talk about sex and show off how perverted she is. I’m not arguing that girls don’t have a one track mind in any case but it seems like she’s incapable of having any other noteworthy exploits after her dad’s passing. Like other characters, despite her going through some major life events herself, her base character remains relatively unchanged which I think is a shame. There is even a bit towards the end where Midori asks Watanabe hoe his appearance has changed so drastically to which he replies “By growing up”. 

So with as much as I’ve ranted about above, there were some really nice and quite profound moments in the book. These were primarily when Murakami was dealing with confronting the concept of death and grief for example like this exerpt:

“The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that.” 

The section in the hospital where he strikes up a simple but genuine connection with Midori’s father was also a very well written part that came across quite delicately touching. I’d also argue with myself that when Midori meets with Watanabe for the first time after her dad’s passing seemed relatively sincere. That passes enough to make the “nice moments” category. 

As much as graphic description of physical passion, no matter how artfully written, can increase a book’s intensity, it needs to be balanced with nuanced moments like the above to give it fleshing out. Life is not complete without variety and whilst there were some good explorations into some of the more intense aspects of the human condition the novel overall still feels lacking for me personally. 

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