Norwegian Wood was the novel that propelled Haruki Murakami to stardom in Japan. In an interview with The Paris Review, Murakami stated that he wrote Norwegian Wood in order to break into the mainstream. In comparison with his other works, such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood is realistic and does not incorporate the fantastical scenarios.
The book centers around the main character Toru, a university student living in Tokyo. Toru, much like Murakami, is an avid reader and music listener. When he is not studying or reading, Toru works at a record shop. At all other times, Toru thinks about Naoko, a childhood friend and the woman he loves. However, since the death of Naoko's boyfriend and childhood friend when they were in high school, Naoko became plagued with depression. Throughout the entire story, Toru grapples with his love for Naoko and wanting to protect her, and her isolated state. His affection for her rarely feels reciprocated; and as she isolates herself in a mental health clinic in the mountains, Toru lives the life of a university student. Along the way he meets Midori, and thus begins his struggle with staying linked to his past (Naoko) and the possibilities of his future (Midori).
Norwegian Wood, much like many of Murakami's novels, is hyper-sexualized. The sex scenes of the book read almost like pornography and the fetishized encounters at times feel unrealistic and forced. Some sexual encounters between Toru and the different female characters he interacts with read as though they were written for the sake of being shocking. Also, Toru's participation during the sex, at times, feels secondary - as though he is barely putting in effort. However, the character development of Toru, along with secondary characters like Midori and Reiko, is amazing to see. They are characters who suffer greatly throughout the story and yet ultimately persevere and grow. Midori's character was my favorite, for she was independent and honest (and perhaps the most realistic of the characters).
The struggles Naoko goes through throughout the novel are poignant. She is a tormented individual, struggling with her past - the suicide of her boyfriend and her sexual dysfunction- while attempting to save herself from a deep depression. She is at times a frustrating character, and her withdrawals from Toru and Reiko were difficult to get through. However, you get a sense that Naoko is someone that could not be saved - not even by herself. And quite guiltily I found myself wishing for Toru to move on with his life.
Norwegian Wood is a book all Murakami fans should read. It is a somber novel that delves into the psyche of the human mind and how we cope with our pasts and our torments. The book doesn't have the fascinating scenes many of Murakami's books do, and to say that this novel is far from the style of his other works would be an understatement. However, it is the sexual encounters that occur in the novel that leave wanting. Not because of the description, but because they don't leave much for the imagination. They read as the works of someone who used pornography solely for a reference - or worse yet, used no reference at all. Murakami does not shy away from sex scenes in his other novels, but even those seem more refined and purposeful. In Norwegian Wood you sense that the author did write certain parts for the sake of being sensational.
Nevertheless, I recommend it. It is a relatively quick read and regardless of some of the pitfalls the characters are still interestingly written.
Overall Rating: 4 / 5