Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Norwegian Wood

By Liz
Book Review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Official FC Rating:

When I was having a particularly rough day, my partner offered to get me a book while he was visiting one of my favorite bookstores that evening. I was in a negative place at the time- I had just had my terrible experience with The Bookshop, work was particularly stressful- I needed something I knew would be a comfort. At the time I had already read three of Haruki Murakami’s books (this is now my fourth) and loved them each, so I felt safe asking for Norwegian Wood.
Despite already feeling confident I’d enjoy this novel, somehow it still managed to surpass my expectations. It’s been years since a book has touched me like Norwegian Wood. When I finished reading, like I usually do, I skimmed some reviews on Goodreads. This review explains how I felt about this novel well:
“There are some books you read, which leave you with stories-bitter, exciting, adrenaline-driven, romantic, depressing or grisly. And then there are books which leave you with feelings. Norwegian Wood, most definitely, belongs to the second category.”
Norwegian Wood has sometimes been described simply as a love story, and other times as a coming-of-age story, but leaving the description to those terms is far too narrow for the scope of this work. Norwegian Wood is about our protagonist, Toru, as he learns to navigate the complicated worlds of death, love, life, and how each of these worlds intersect.
My dad died when I was 17. My mom got a call at 3 AM on April 29th, 2009, and I woke up to her crying- my dad had a sudden heart attack. In Norwegian Wood, Toru’s best friend, Kizuki, commits suicide on his 17th birthday. As Toru learns to cope with, and understand, death, I related greatly to his insights and feelings, especially since we both experienced loss during the same age period. When I read the below excerpt, I got chills- these words truly resonated with me:
"Death exists...and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust."
Like Toru, after my dad died life and death became much more complicated concepts. Once you lose someone, so much of your very being changes. What touched me the most about this novel is how well it captures the impacts of death on your mental health, how you view the world, and how important it is to hold your loved ones close.
From the very first page of this novel, I noticed that stylistically it was very different from the other Murakami novels I’ve read. At first I thought that maybe it was because this novel was written by a different translator than the other Murakami novels I’ve read, but I don’t think this is the case because there were points in the novel where I thought “ah, here’s the kind of Murakami writing I am used to.” All of that being said, this novel is beautifully written in every way, from the story itself to the style of writing. I thought this particular excerpt was remarkably poetic and visual:

The more Murakami I read, the more I feel I am getting a grasp on his writing and what he is about. Like Kafka on the Shore (which I reviewed on GoodReads), Norwegian Wood was one more Murakami novel that helped me understand his various themes and philosophies. In this novel, and in his other novels, music, the importance of exercise, and the necessity of love, especially through trying times, are all themes throughout the text. Additionally, in my review of Kafka on the Shore, I mention how Murkami consistently resolves any possible monetary issues his lead characters could encounter and how I felt that he did this purposely so his characters would be free to develop themselves without restrictions. My suspicion of this was confirmed in Norwegian Wood.
Norwegian Wood is much more contemporary than Murakami’s other novels- it has less fantastical elements and is more grounded in reality. So, class issues were brought up in a very different way than his other novels. I feel the best example is through Midori’s struggle. Midori, one of Toru’s love interests, grew up in a working class neighborhood and worked her whole life in her family’s small shop. She was sent to private school and constantly felt ostracized because she couldn’t invite friends over to her small home, or couldn’t always go to a friend’s home. Midori frequently discusses how her family’s financial struggles greatly dictated how she could develop in life. On the opposite side of Midori is Toru’s friend, Nagasawa, who is exceptionally wealthy and, consequently, aloof, uncaring, and selfish. Both these characters emphasize how money can impact one’s development.
Class is also alluded to in other ways in the novel. For example, Toru often discusses how his favorite novel is The Great Gatsby. It’s no secret that The Great Gatsby is about how the American dream is unattainable- that it is impossible to both prosper under capitalism and maintain healthy and loving relationships. Without spoiling too much, the story of Nagasawa and his girlfriend, Hatsumi, very much mirrors the story of The Great Gatsby.
Norwegian Wood is frequently compared to The Catcher in the Rye, which makes sense given the themes they have in common. The main characters of both novels deal with internal struggles following the death of a loved one, both novels have themes regarding mental health, frustrations with society, and class issues.  The frustration of hypocrisy in society is an area where I felt the two novels were most strongly connected. At one point Midori shares with Toru a story about her experience joining a revolutionary student group on campus. She discusses how despite the students being highly educated about the theories of Marx and various other political theorists, none of the students had the patience to actually teach or discuss those theories. What angered Midori the most was undoubtedly how women in the group were treated in comparison to the men. This supposedly radical and progressive group still would make the women prepare meals for the meetings and would silence the women from actively taking part in discussions.
Finally, you can’t discuss a Murakami novel without discussing the importance of love. While figuring out how to cope with the death of Kizuki, Toru falls in love with Kizuki’s high school girlfriend, Naoko. Both Naoko and Toru truly get close after Kizuki’s death, however, the way both of them are able to handle his death is very different. Naoko and Kizuki knew each other since they were children. Having grown up together, she never felt they would be apart. After Kizuki dies, Naoko battles severe anxiety and depression that render her incapable of being in the “normal” world. Naoko checks herself into a sanitorium in a rural, mountainous region of Japan, where Toru keeps in touch with her via letters and occasional visits. While Naoko and Toru are apart, Toru eventually meets Midori, who in many regards is the total opposite of Naoko. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!! I feel that Toru’s relationships with Naoko and Midori represent the different phases he enters following Kizuki’s death. Towards the end of the novel, while Toru still very much loves Naoko, he realizes that he is very much in love with Midori and wants to find happiness in life with her. By deciding to commit to Midori, this moment symbolizes that Toru is finally beginning to heal from Kizuki’s death.
Each paragraph I’ve written could easily be their own essays, and I could even go into more, but allow me to wrap this up (if I haven’t already bored you to death). This novel can get nothing less than five stars from me. It has everything you could want in  a book- an excellent plot and characters, complex and interesting themes, and beautifully written language. I laughed, I cried, and I related- this novel goes down as my favorite of the year.

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