This post of Norwegian Wood by author Haruki Murakami has been adapted from two previous posts. First is the spoiler free review followed by the spoiler full review and summary.
Spoiler Free Review
Norwegian Wood is an earlier novel of Murakami’s and it lacks a lot of the magical realism aspects that made me fall in love with his greater works.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still spectacularly written and engaging but I miss the supernatural aspect that brings me away from a spotlight on human flaws.
Norwegian Wood is the story of Toru Watanabe and his first two loves. Naoko and Midori have completely different personalities and are both completely damaged in their own ways.
Naoko is a childhood friend of Toru who struggles far more with mental illness than he realizes and Midori is a hot mess of crazy who would drive anyone insane right along with her.
I honestly did not like the main characters in this book. They are all very flawed and at times despicable.
However, they are never unrealistic. As much as it pains me to admit I could put myself in their shoes on several occasions. I didn’t like reliving some of the memories that it brought up but I am glad to say that I outgrew many of the flaws I see represented here.
There is so much done in youth that you do not realize is as harmful as it is. It’s easy to pass judgement on these characters but can you honestly say you’ve never been one of them?
Murakami finds and highlights those youthful indiscretions as well as a darker side to human sexuality.
Sex is weird in this book. I see a lot of reviews that complain about the graphic nature of the sex scenes and conversations but I didn’t have a problem with the descriptions so much as the motives.
Norwegian Wood contains many reasons that a person would have sex but not one of them is as an expression of romantic love. We see sex for power, boredom, loneliness, physical need, curiosity, obligation, drunkenness, and grief. But not from two people in a healthy loving relationship expressing their feelings for each other.
But still, that is very human. This is the most relatable book that you don’t want to relate to.
It deals with endless emotions. A majority of which are negative. Such as grief, loneliness, regret, anger, jealousy, confusion, spite, etc. But just as in real life when you experience negative emotion after negative emotion it really makes the positive occurrences that much more special. You need the dichotomy.
Mukakami’s brilliant prose keeps the story flowing whether you like what’s being said or not. It may be uncomfortable at times but it’s never dull.
I like to think that there is an unwritten sequel in which Toru learns from all the negatives in this book and outgrows a lot of these people and problems. But if there’s not, maybe you can learn from him instead.
Norwegian Wood Summary
I am a big fan of Murakami’s. I consider The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 to be two of my all time favorite books. Murakami has such an amazing way with words and I truly enjoy his subtle magical realism that’s infused with all of the fiction of his I’ve read so far.
That is except for Norwegian Wood. This one lacks that magic. That supernatural element that displaces it from the reality we know.
It is definitely his most grounded out of the ones I’ve read. It’s the story of Toru Watanabe and his first two loves.
First is Naoko. He met her when she was dating his high school friend. They ended up as friends by proxy but never more. That is until their mutual friend committed suicide.
Suicide will be a running theme throughout this book. Especially in Naoko’s life. She seems to experience it a lot.
After high school they stay in touch and gradual grow into a romantic relationship. At one point Naoko visits Toru at college and she loses her virginity to him while crying.
Sex is very strange in Norwegian Wood. After finishing the book I realized that there are depictions of many different kinds of sex sessions. But I wouldn’t call any of them love making. There is pretty much every reason to have sex in this book except for as an expression of romantic love.
After they have sex she disappears for months. Toru writes her and she doesn’t write back. She finally writes him to say that she’s gone to a sanatorium and has prepared herself to never see him again.
With that information Toru attempts to go about his life. He meets a new girl named Midori and honestly, I kind of hate her.
She’s the girl that makes boys think all girls are crazy. Throughout the entire book she leads him on. She talks graphically about sex and all the dirty things she’d like to do with Toru but then always ends with that she has a boyfriend and can’t.
She’s a cruel tease as well as crass and generally insane. She’s a compulsive liar and admits it after the lie has suited her needs.
Toru is bouncing around between being teased by Midori and the memory of Naoko. Then one day Naoko writes to say that he should visit so he drops everything to do so.
Toru has a willingness to relinquish control of his own life that I also do not find admirable. He’s a go with the flow kind of guy in the worst way, he takes very few actions for himself of his own accord.
He goes to the sanatorium and meets her much older roommate Reiko. The three of them spend time together getting to know each other much better.
One night Naoko sleepwalks into Toru’s room and exposes herself to him in a fugue state. She doesn’t recall it the next day.
We then learn that Naoko’s sister and uncle both committed suicide as well and that she may have more mental health issues than she previously led on.
Reiko tells her story of how a 13 year old former pupil of hers honey trapped her and framed her for pedophilic rape and that’s why she tried to kill herself and has been living at the sanitarium ever since.
This story was fascinating. I knew where it was going when she started telling it but Murikami is such a good writer I was enraptured by the disturbing tale.
Toru returns home to Midori who is such a high maintenance pile of crazy. She asks Toru to think about her while he’s masturbating. She basically demands this of him and couches it by saying he should do it “as a friend.”
She then gets really drunk. Fall asleep in a public bathroom drunk. And continues to say really perverted things to her “friend.”
It’s so unusual to see her character. I’ve known this girl. Hell, when I was much younger I may have even been this girl on occasion. But I’ve never seen her in a book before. So blatant and unromanticized. What I could never figure out is if we were supposed to like her or not.
I didn’t like her, at all. And even thinking about how my foolish younger self could ever be compared to her hurts me. I’m disgusted by it and ashamed that young women behave like this at all.
I am certain that Murakami must have been a Toru to a Midori at least once in his life and this is his way of dealing with it. Feelings are so complicated but please don’t let someone treat you so poorly.
Now Naoko is being sent to a real hospital now because her mental state has severely declined. Toru attempts to write her letters but she does not respond.
Midori decides that it’s time to stop leaving Toru as the backup plan and breaks up with her boyfriend for him. Toru decides he loves Midori too but doesn’t know if he should tell the fragile Naoko.
He has his mind made up for him when he discovers that Naoko killed herself.
Reiko finally leaves the sanitarium in order to visit Toru and discuss Naoko’s death. The have grief sex four times in that night and then she leaves to start a new life.
As I said, lots of reasons to have sex. None of them love.
In the end Toru ends up with Midori, they’re intending to make a real attempt at a real relationship.
If I was Toru’s friend I would strongly advise against this decision but I guess he needs to learn this lesson the hard way.
I really dislike the way the females are characterized in this novel but I cannot say that they are inaccurate representations. It’s difficult with a book like this that does not necessarily set out to be anti-woman but it does happen to highlight some of the worst qualities a human can have and focuses them on the women.
However, we do get a slight balance with the male characters in that Toru is spineless and his only real college friend is a womanizing narcissist. They’re just discussed in less extremes.
Usually when there are characters like this in a book I have a hard time getting into it. I do not like stories that have only unlikable characters. Where Murakami succeeds in that these characters are unlikable in ways that are mirrors of ourselves.
Certainly you’ve been a tease, or depressed, or a narcissist, or spineless, or anything else that you are not proud of. You’ll see that reflected here and you may not like it but maybe you’ll learn from it.
As with any Murakami book, Norwegian Wood is spectacularly engaging and well written. I just miss the magic of his other ones, a little distance from harsh reality is simply nicer.
4/5 broken hearts 💔💔💔💔
For more Murakami check out Killing Commendatore.
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