72 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2004
This is the first book by Haruki Murakami I've read, and on the strength of this, I would certainly attempt his other novels. "Norwegian Wood" is a quick read, drawing the reader in closer and deeper as the characters, their lives, and their deaths intertwine.
Having just finished the book, I'm at a bit of a loss for what to say about it. It is about love, death, youth, friendship, and ultimately, how fragile and delicate humans are, and how much we seek protection from this fragility in the arms of others or in our own private prisons. Toru Watanabe, the protagonist, locks himself in a prison of solitude, which he eventually escapes, with difficulty, only through the death of a close friend/lover and the realization that he is basically alone in the world. This realization forces him to come to terms with his feelings for a woman who challenges his cold side while simultaneously acknowledging his softer side via her own need for companionship, understanding, and love.
There are many deaths in this book, although they take place somewhat at the outskirts of the other action. The deaths act as catalysts for characters to learn, grow, change, or in some cases, retreat, wither, and become isolated. It is this constant interplay between retreat and advancement, withering and growth, isolation and togetherness, which seems to be a theme of this novel, and a central struggle each and every one of its characters must face. In that respect, Murakami has hit on a central struggle for all humans: intimacy vs. independence.
It's Murakami's amazingly poetic writing, his evocative, sensual observations, and the way he renders characters so complex with the simplest of language and details that makes this novel so memorable. Another reviewer compared it to Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and while the content and themes are somewhat different, perhaps the lesson is that the elusive "comfort zone," finding it and staying in it, is a major concern of and struggle for most people. There is always something ready to knock us off or out of that balance.
The ending of this novel doesn't suggest that Watanabe has found that balance or lost it. It really says nothing about how Watanabe resolves the current dynamics in his life. And perhaps that "non-ending" is just another reflection of the "unbearable lightness of being," the strange place which we seem to inhabit only at times, when our expectations, needs, and actions all seem to magically work together at once. The normal state of affairs is that these things conspire to unbalance us, especially when we bring other people into the equation. "Norwegian Wood" expresses, in beautiful language, how the balance between people is so delicate, and how it sometimes takes a major catalyst, like death or loss, to jolt us into understanding our inter-connectedness.
176 of 195 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2001
I had read and enjoyed Haruki Murakami's tetralogy (Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, A Wild Sheep Chase, and Dance Dance Dance), and I loved his Wind-Up Bird Chronicle novel, but I was ready for something new.
In reviews and on websites, I had read over and over about Norwegian Wood, the "straightforward" novel that was published years ago in Japan, which still was not for sale in the states, since there was not an authorized translation available. This novel sold a HUGE number of copies in Japan. I was wondering: I love those other novels by Murakami. Are they so demanding? Complicated? If Norwegian Wood is so much simpler than the other novels, will I even like Norwegian Wood?
The plot: It's the late 1960's. College student Toru falls in love with the girlfriend of his (dead) best friend. She eventually becomes ill (though not physically ill) and has to leave to live under special circumstances, far away from him. While she's gone, he meets Midori, a college student who obviously is interested in him. But he's holding out for his girlfriend Naoko. Never knowing if she will recover from her ailment and be able to rejoin him in society, he goes to classes, sells phonograph records at night, and spends some time with Midori. He visits Naoko a few times, gets to know her wacky roommate/friend/mentor Reiki, and eventually he has to decide between a life with Naoko (without Naoko?) or with Midori. Throw in a bizarre Geography-major roommate nicknamed "Storm Trooper," a scene where Midori (badly) sings folk songs to our Toru while they watch a neighborhood fire from the balcony above her parents' bookshop, and assorted other hilarious/bizarre characters and passages, and you've got vintage Haruki Murakami.
My favorite scene is one in which Midori takes Toru to visit her ill father in the hospital. He's so ill he can barely eat or speak, but Toru convinces Midori to enjoy a respite, and take a walk by herself out to a park in town. Toru is left alone with this bedridden stranger, in a situation that would seem forced, harsh, and impossible to enjoy, yet they make some very odd and touching inroads with each other. It's very unusual, and perfect in just the way that so many of Murakami's scenes seem to be.
The novel isn't as complex as Haruki's other work, and it's missing some of the magical realist / sci-fi / unexplainable elements that were so prevalent in Dance Dance Dance, Wild Sheep Chase, and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. However, this novel is just as enjoyable, and just as worthwhile. This novel has a sustained emotional depth that other works by Murakami only achieve in passages.
If you're a fan of modern literature at all, do yourself a favor. Read Norwegian Wood, and read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2000
How should I start. I first read this book 7 years ago in its Chinese translation. But after reading this newly published version it all came back to me. All the sad feelings and the helplessness. This book is just too wonderful it's beyond description. And I can't help falling into the roles in the story while listening to the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood". You have to get your hand on this book (preferably the Biritish versionto feel it for yourself. I agree with one of the reviews here this book do feel like J.D. Salinger "Catcher in the Rye". Murakami sort of admitted it himself by writing a line mentioning the book. But "Norwegian Wood" is so powerful in its own way bewteen life and dead; love and hate. This book is a lot more than its protracted images of a love story of a Tokyo college student, although it's more of a guy's romance. Its odd sex patterns and almost frequent suicides mark the authenticity of Japanese culture while strongly persevere the usual influence of American literature and culture in Murakami's works. Maybe it has something to do with Murakami being born in Kobe, a wide-open trading port where Western cultures were available in the early 1900s. Anyway, the reason I am writing this review (at 3:30 a.m.) is that I just can't fall asleep after reading it, even it's the second time in 7 years.
198 of 232 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2002
It's not "Norwegian Wood" the story itself that I give 1 star to- it's the Jay Rubin translation. Over a decade ago I bought the Alfred Birnbaum translation, and I find Birnbaum to be a far superior translator to Rubin. Rubin's translation of certain sensual phrases from the Japanese turn into stale duds of sentences compared to Birnbaum's more heartfelt ones. Moreover, Rubin deletes words, sentences and paragraphs as he feels fit- Birnbaum does not make as vast edits as Rubin does. In this version of NW, Rubin writes that Murakami has approved this as the official translation. I'm sorry to say that although Murakami is my favorite author in the whole world, I have heard him lecture and his spoken English is remarkably terrible- he may know how to translate written English to Japanese really well, but he could use to learn about translating from his native language to English. I've rattled on long enough- but let it be said, Birnbaum's translation is far superior- and if you do not live in Japan, then go to your local Japanese bookstore in America like Kinokuniya or Asahiya and get it- leave this disgrace of a translation on the shelf.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2004
What is it about these Japanese writers that are able to make prose sound like Poetry? I am a fan of Banana Yoshimoto, another Japanese writer, whose book "the Kitchen" is one of my favorites. Norwegian Wood deals with the same "life after (the) death (of a close person)" issues and what it does to those left behind. However, whereas "the Kitchen" is a short, condensed book which brings on, alongside the feelings of grief and pain a very strong passion for life and all it has to offer, Norwegian Wood is a very long (at least - it feels like very long) tale with a lot of detailed inside reflection and thought.
I was not expecting this book to be what it is - a wonderful, dark piece of art. A heavy shadow clings to your heart while reading this story and the feeling of sadness and very deep sorrow is overwhelming and stays with you for a long time. I was therefore surprised to read that this book is described as an "erotic love story". It is true that the book has many sex scenes, but the sex is so painful and so connected to the overall grave feeling of the book that it brings no comfort. Also, the words "love story ", seem - so I feel - to simplify this very complicated story.
Reading the translator's note at the end of the book I understand that the story has some autobiographical points, especially in the portrayal of a Japanese student life in the 70 years. For me however, this was a very personal inner account of a difficult time in a young man's life - a period that will leave its deep marks and in many ways will shape the man he is about to become. Norwegian Wood deals with questions of loyalty - to yourself, to the dead and the living and discusses the thin line between sanity and insanity. Most of all you are a participant to the hero's inner world - his feelings and the process of his falling in love - what he is drawn to and what captures his heart.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on August 18, 2001
Upon picking up Murakami's Norwegian Wood, I wasn't sure if I would be crazy about it--I've read most of his other works and enjoyed them greatly. I knew that Norwegian Wood deviated from his typical formula, and even included a non-divorced, 20 year-old narrator instead of the typical 37 year-old, single man. So I wasn't sure what to expect.
I was astounded by this book. Murakami does a superb job of capturing emotions and putting them into words. The character he introduces are beyond fleshed out, to the point where you feel as if you know them. The entire storyline is gripping, and will you leave you wishing the book wasn't only 300 pages.
It's difficult to describe the beauty of this book without desiring to quote passages, or even ask the reader to finish the entire book before discussing it's strengths. I highly suggest this book to anyone who has ever loved and felt powerful emotion. You will find a buoy in the ocean of feeling and be amazed at how absorbed you will become in Murakami's story.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2000
A simple tale made memorable precisely by its simplicity, 'Norwegian wood' narrates the saga of Toru Watanabe, an unassuming Japanese youth, who falls in love with his dead friend's girlfriend. The main theme of the book is Toru's patient wait for Naoko to fall in love with him and the sensitivity he shows in coming to terms with her broken psyche following the death of her beau. Along this seemingly unending wait for Naoko, Toru comes across Midori, a fellow student who adores him. A beautiful girl who likes getting drunk and watching dirty movies, Midori lights up the otherwise depressing book with her out-of-the-world antics... Its hard to not to smile when you read about this girl who, when drunk, likes climbing the roadside trees and falls asleep in the loo in the middle of the night! Reiko's another intriguing character... she's Naoko's fellow inmate who, despite her personal trials and tribulations, tries to bring about the union of Toru and Naoko. In this seemingly simple love-story, Murakami has ensured that no character in the book seems out of place... in fact, it is a pleasant summation of all of them that makes Norwegian Wood eminently readable.
32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2000
This is one of the more magical and sensual books that I've read this year. Toru Watanabe is a Tokyo student at the end of the sixties. Western culture abounds (the novel is named after the Beatles' tune). 'Norwegian Wood' is Naoko's favourite song, and one that she pays her friend Reiko to play. It's a song that seems destined to torment her for the rest of her life. In his own subtle way, Murakami suggests to us the power of great art. This novel also belongs to that class. Once you've started to read 'Norwegian Wood', you'll become addicted to it. Murakami creates characters that reside in your mind as real beings. They're people who you will come to love. His fiction also transcends cultural barriers, in that 'Norwegian Wood' could have been set anywhere. Its emotional centre is that of painful adolescence, so any casual reader will have a great deal to identify with the main protagonists from the off. Just as Toru is forced into the past by a single note of 'Norwegian Wood', this book will also compel you to confront your own past, the people that you have loved and maybe lost. The sixties student rebellions seem to have shook almost every part of the world, and Murakami's novel does feature such a revolt. No doubt the fuel blockades currently afflicting Britain and Europe will be similarly remembered in future years. In one revealing scene, Murakami has Midori articulate that great truth that when higher education chooses to debate the class struggle, it often does so in terms that exclude the working class (note my indoctrinated and ironical use of 'articulate'). Of course, I read a translation (in the Harvill edition, presented like a box of Cubans, "hand-rolled on the thighs of maidens"), but the power of Murakami's prose shines through. Toru extols the exquisite prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Murakami cannot have had a better writing tutor, where every word is a wonder in itself.
Naoko and Reiko have decided to exile themselves away from the mental torments of everyday life in a remote mountain community. Toru comes to visit Naoko, his sometime lover. Together, they share the memory of Kizuki, Noako's boyfriend, who inexplicably killed himself at the age of 17. Naoko has far more difficulty expressing her feelings than Toru, something that he finds both beguiling and painful. Under the loving care of Reiko, Toru and Naoko try to explore their feelings for each other. What was the truth behind their night of shared passion? Reiko believes that Toru may be the best tonic for Naoko (such great irony), but Naoko has her own reasons for pushing Toru away, despite knowing how much she needs him. In one telling episode, Naoko reveals herself to Toru as she sleepwalks, a troubled soul reaching out for help.
Denied physical contact with the one woman he really cares about, Toru satisfies his bodily needs with a series of one night stands, out on the town in the company of his twisted but content friend Nagasawa. But even as his body is sated, Toru cannot help but feel disgust. However, his torment is tempered by Midori, who pushes her way into his life. She does not seem to mind that Toru is alienated, and far from content to be the Norm. She loves the peculiar way Toru talks and almost consults him as if he were a guru, demanding that he relate his carnal fantasies to her. Midori has been to an all-girl school, and seems to have an endless fascination for those pleasures that she has yet to experience. However, she too has her pain and a peculiar kind of madness. Inevitably, it seems, Toru is torn between his feelings for the inaccessible Naoko, and Midori's passion for him... Will Toru be forced down the path that has led so many of his friends to self-oblivion?
'Norwegian Wood' is a great, powerful novel. The kind of art that stays with you for the rest of your life, the kind of music which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand tall, to force a shiver of delight and pain through your body, to make your mouth starch dry. There are excellent characters, from the lowly Storm Trooper, to the warm and loving Reiko. There is also great subtlety, surprising in such an emotional novel. This is, above all, a very sensual work of art, with every feeling touched upon and plucked with the greatest of skill.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2002
This novel was a huge depature from Murakami's other work. Unlike his other works, which are chalk full of evil sheep, unicorns, wind up birds, and the end of the world, Norwegian Wood is a fairly straight forward coming of age love story. But the relativly simplistic plot of this novel betrays a very complex underworking that is just as good, if not better, then the other, more playful and bizarre, books. In terms of actual style, I couldn't help but liken it to a mixture of The Great Gatasby and Catcher in the Rye (bot of which are alluded too many times in the course of Norwegian Wood). Unlike the other Murakami's, which I feel have an almost emotional void to them (which I love, don't get me wrong...), this one was almost painfully emotional. Loce, loss, hardship, happiness; Murakami touches on all of them. And Toru Watanabe is not the average Murakami Hero. AGain, he is more emotional, less detached then the others. The reader knows him far better than any of the other protagonists in the other novels. You feel for him. You understand the basis of his pain. It's really a powerful novel. Any Murakami fan that hasn't yet read this, must get to it as soon as poissible. Don't overlook it because it appears to be mainstream (which it really isn't). However...if you are looking for a Murakami book to start with, I really can't recommend this one, simply because it is so much more different than the other books. Try the Wind-up Chronicle or A Wild Sheep Chase. And have fun. Reading Murakami for the first time is on e of the greatest experiences you can have.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2000
If you ever find yourself in Japan, or at one of the Kinokuniya branches in New York or San Francisco, be sure to pick up a copy of "Norwegian Wood," the runaway bestseller that made Haruki Murakami a superstar in Japan, now reasonably priced and available in the same attractive gold-boxed, two-part, red-and-green paperback volumes that Japanese schoolgirls supposedly used to carry to school every day, according to which volume coordinated with their outfits. It's hard to believe that this book was such a huge hit in Japan, given its intensely individualistic, introverted, isolated focus, which seems to clash so strongly with the collectivist Japanese orientation; it's even harder to imagine this being a book read widely by schoolchildren, with its themes of drunkenness, promiscuity, infidelity, masturbation, lesbianism, child molestation, brain damage, mental illness, suicide, and death (all made lighter, however, by humorous tales of college dorm life and canny references to pop songs from the 60's). At any rate, this is definitely one of Murakami's best books, surpassed only by "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" and "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" (in ambition, but not in quality of writing). Murakami fans will find themes from his other works in "Norwegian Wood"--the theme of choosing a long-lost fantasy lover over a more realistic current partner from "South of the Border, West of the Sun," or the theme of choosing to live in comfortable isolation or complicated reality from "Wonderland," for example. The book that "Norwegian Wood" probably most resembles, though, is "Wind-Up Bird," in its protagonist's prolonged, agonizing quest to come to terms with his past and secure a solid identity for himself. "Norwegian Wood" works in almost the opposite way from "Wind-Up Bird," however--whereas in "Wind-Up Bird," the main character isolated himself in a fantasy world so he could reflect on how to recapture his real life, in "Norwegian Wood," the main character tries to plod along in the real world, all the while idealizing a former fantasy life he still wants to keep real.
"Norwegian Wood" is almost impossible to get a hold of, but for fans who can manage to find it, it's a real treat and worth the effort.