Norwegian Wood

This novel contains themes of suicide, depression, mental illness, graphic sexual content, death, grief, and loss. Please proceed with caution if these topics are potentially distressing for you. Your wellbeing is crucial.

Spoilers included

Stepping into the world of Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” was like walking into a song, one that unravels its melody in the most haunting, yet beautiful way. The title, borrowed from the Beatles song, is fitting as it sets an aural and symbolic background for this love story set in the late 60s.

The narrative takes on a desperate intensity as Toru attempts to recall events from the late 1960s. The fear of forgetting the most important memories lends a certain urgency to the storytelling, making it not just a nostalgic trip, but a desperate attempt to capture an exquisitely painful past.

As Toru navigates the emotional turmoil of his youth, he grapples with the suicide of his best friend Kizuki, and the ensuing mental breakdown of Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko. Their mostly silent walks through Tokyo streets eventually lead to a shifting relationship, further complicated when Naoko disappears, shaking Toru’s composure.

The introduction of vibrant Midori into Toru’s life creates an emotional tug-of-war. This lively character contrasts sharply with Naoko, breathing life into Toru’s world which had been shrouded by death and loss.

Murakami paints an unsettling landscape in “Norwegian Wood”, devoid of safe havens or truly unconditional love. It’s a world where offering solace often comes at a personal cost, and happiness is just the ability to ignore looming dangers. The metaphoric ‘field well’, a terrifying unknown depth at the edge of Naoko’s world, embodies the emotional abyss that characters teeter on. The possibility of falling in feels all too real, contributing to the novel’s pervasive sense of dread.

Faced with a choice between the ‘quiet and gentle love’ he shares with Naoko and the vivacious Midori who shakes him to his roots, Toru stands at a crossroads. The memory of Kizuki, forever seventeen, lingers beneath this choice, symbolizing a refusal of adulthood.

His death leaves a profound impact on both Toru and Naoko, disrupting their lives and propelling them into a journey of self-discovery/destruction. Kizuki’s absence is a constant presence in their lives, shaping their actions and decisions. His death becomes a part of their identities, a shared loss that binds them yet drives them apart. Death in “Norwegian Wood” is also portrayed as an all-pervading reality. It’s described by Toru as “always present among us,” a fine dust that we continue to breathe into our lungs. This idea emphasizes the temporary nature of life and the certainty of death. It serves as a reminder of mortality, influencing the characters’ perspectives and choices.

Sex in “Norwegian Wood” is frequently engulfed in layers of emotional turmoil and profound melancholy. It is not merely an act of physical love or attraction but serves as a means of communication and connection. The characters’ sexual encounters are tied to their efforts to understand each other and themselves, to mitigate their loneliness, and to deal with their grief. A discomfort arises not just from the physical act itself, but also from the emotional implications and the inherent complexities. The sexual encounters for Toru often carry a significant emotional burden, further blurring the line between love and sex. Each relationship he experiences is tainted with confusion, pain, and a sense of loss, creating an unsettling atmosphere as Toru struggles to navigate these complex relationships.

Haruki Murakami’s writing style in “Norwegian Wood” has a deep impact on the overall experience of the book. His prose is simple yet profound and is marked by an uncanny ability to blend everyday life with deep existential themes. His sentence structure is straightforward, avoiding overly complex syntax, yet each line carries a weight of emotion and meaning. The minimalist style lends clarity to the narrative, allowing readers to become immersed in the story and characters without getting lost in complicated literary techniques. Murakami’s skill lies in his ability to convey complex emotions through simple, relatable scenarios. His descriptions of places and people are vivid and detailed, making them feel familiar and real. The way he details Tokyo, for instance, allows readers to visualize and experience the city as if they were walking alongside Toru.

Unlike typical love stories or fairy tales where one protagonist gracefully steps aside, Murakami denies us such easy resolutions. The novel finishes with Watanabe in a meadow, having just arrived after receiving news of Reiko’s departure. He calls out to Midori, the girl he loves, but we’re not told whether she responds, or even if he’s sure he loves her. This ambiguous ending carries significant weight. It mirrors the overall themes of the novel: uncertainty, loss, and the complexities of young love and adulthood. It also reflects Watanabe’s constant struggle between his past (represented by Naoko, who has died) and his present/future (represented by Midori).

I had some reservations about the portrayal of women in the novel. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but notice that the female characters seemed to be defined primarily by their relationships with men. They were often depicted as objects of desire or as sources of emotional turmoil for the male protagonist. This portrayal felt limiting and reductive to me, as it reduced the complexity and agency of these women.

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