Image Credit: Vintage, 2003
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami is one of the most harrowing and beautiful stories I have ever encountered. It is Murakami’s most well-known novel and the one that made him particularly popular with young adults with its portrayal of Japanese students and their rocky transition into adulthood. Norwegian Wood takes you on an emotional journey through hope, loss, despair, grief and love while following the life of protagonist Toru Watanabe, a student at the University of Tokyo in the late 1960s.
Toru Watanabe’s life is complex and at times tough to come to terms with. Without giving away any spoilers, he seems to be this void to which multiple bad and corrupting events and people attach themselves to. The novel is narrated by him through a recalling of his memories of his student years in Tokyo after hearing the Beatles song ‘Norwegian Wood’ play over the plane radio.
Within the novel, one of the characters says about the Beatles, “those guys sure know something about the sadness of life”, and perhaps this is a reflection from Murakami about his own writing. He frequently tackles issues of grief, violence and mental illness. The setting up of the novel in an almost dream-like state gives the whole narrative a feeling of otherworldliness, a flashback into a past that is neither nostalgic nor comforting but in fact cripplingly painful for the reader.
The symbol of the Norwegian Wood comes to resemble multiple things. I feel it is meant to be interpreted by each reader individually, but it is clear that Murakami saw the wood as an overarching cloud within the novel. There are lots of images of forests particularly in association with mental instability, coldness, and grief. Therefore, I put forward the idea that this wood is supposed to be symbolic of a journey which we all experience and through the plot of the book Murakami presents the idea that we are often left with two choices: grief and sorrow or hope and love. It is up to Watanabe and thus the reader to choose one.
Through multiple incidents (of which I will not disclose for fear of ruining the novel) he also demonstrates that some people get lost within this metaphorical wood and let the emotions of it engulf them, meaning they never come out the other end. This idea is ambiguous in relation to Watanabe’s personal plot as we never know which one he chooses, grief or love.
In Norwegian Wood, Murakami explores the theme of sexuality. Watanabe’s sexual journey is at times confusing and very unstable. There are two female figures that he could ultimately be paired with at the novel’s conclusion. The first is Naoko, an emotionally unstable teenager who Watanabe knows from school but who he frequently visits at a sanatorium in the novel. The insufferable love he has for Naoko is clear, but we are never quite sure whether it is enhanced by feelings of guilt and pity or perhaps a sense of duty.
The second love interest is Midori, who is a complete contrast to Naoko: she is outgoing, vivacious and bubbly, although having her own family struggles she seems to be an emblem of hope for Watanabe. There are two projections of a life for Watanabe portrayed through the women: one is a life filled with grief and loss and protecting someone else, and the other is a life of hope and happiness . Within the novel we come to believe that Watanabe is stagnant in his decision and the ending doesn’t give the reader any clarity over whether he decides to allow himself a life filled with love.
Murakami tackles the topics of suicide, mental health, sexuality, education, loneliness and so much more. The characters within the novel present the extremes of youthfulness and the only negative feedback I would have is that when reading it, it doesn’t provide hope or consolidation that if you’re feeling low things will get better. As readers it is easy to feel isolated by Murakami’s portrayal of life and particularly one that should be filled with youthful ambition.
Reading this novel while still a student is something I want to recommend and also warn against. I read it over lockdown and although gracefully done, this book tackles issues relating to mental health that are very raw and real in a lot of people’s lives.
Murakami’s novel is not light-hearted, nor would I want it to be. In being made less intense it would lose all of its complexity that makes it so engaging. It is one of those life and perspective changing novels but anything that is going to change you is of course going to affect you.
The reality of being a student during a global pandemic and having most or all of your classes online is that it is isolating and at times lonely, and if you have been feeling this way then perhaps you may find you should leave reading this book to a later date. This book allows you to feel deeply, which can be an amazing and enlightening process, but it is also emotionally unsettling and quite frankly should come with a warning label.