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Friday, November 18, 2011

Norwegian Wood: too much sex, not enough cats

Last year a truly lovely Japanese lady, who I now miss very much, introduced me to the work of Haruki Murakami. She recommended Kafka on the Shore which I read slowly but with great enjoyment. It is the kind of book that surprises you at every turn but not in the usual way. It is not a case of dramatic “you-didn’t-see-me-did-you” twists. Rather, it is like stepping through a series of new paradigms, each slightly stranger than the last. Just the sort of thing I like. And there are talking cats, so you can’t ask more than that.

Because it is all so odd, I decided not to jump into Murakami feet first. I thought that he is probably the mind of writer who repays careful and considered consumption.

Thus I find myself, well over a year after Kafka, having read my second Murakami, Norwegian Wood.

As you may be able to guess from the title, this novel has its feet planted firmly in the 1960s. It is the nostalgic memoir of an enigmatic student in Tokyo, Toru, who is up to his ears in free love and student protests. He is smart and interesting and as his girlfriends comment, he does have a funny, spare kind of way of talking. His problem is that his best friend has committed suicide and Toru has responded by, essentially falling in love with the best friend’s girlfriend.

It does not take long to work out that the girlfriend is none too well either. Through her Toru meets a kindly middle age woman whose life as a mildly unhappy provincial piano teacher has been destroyed by false accusations of sexual assault from an adolescent girl.

At the same time, Toru starts seeing another girl who accosts him as he eats alone in a restaurant. Midori is vibrant and funny and seems very real. She talks about sex incessantly and in great detail. If she were a modern day girl, she would definitely be a text-pest. Apart from the girls, and Toru’s conservatively minded room mate, whom he names “storm trooper” to amuse others, Toru only really has one friend. That friend is an almost pneumatically promiscuous clever clogs called Nagasawa. Nagasawa has the sweetest girl in town and cheats on her all the while, except that he doesn’t really see it as cheating.

As I read, I imagined Toru as a young man, good looking but not extremely so, ordinarily dressed. He is standing up and surrounded by the girls and the dead friend and Nagasawa and they are all prodding him, trying to push him their way. He has before him the living and the dead and the nearly dead as well as the pursuit of love and the pursuit of non stop you know what.

I enjoyed his tale and thought it was good. I am not sure that I thought it was more than good though. I was surprised that it was a straight story, albeit quite a poetic one. I am ultimately saddened by the lack of talking cats.
For many, Norwegian Wood is their favourite Murakami and there are plenty of other, differing opinions to be found. Some of them can be seen at: Katie’s Book Blog, Steve Reads and Middlebrow Magazine.


  1. Have you tried The Wind-up Bird Chronicle? That was my first novel by Murakami followed by Norwegian Wood. Those two are still my favourite.

  2. Its funny because I have both this one and Kafka on the shore on my shelf but have not gotten around to reading either. Im trying to decide which one to start with.

  3. I've only read one Murakami: this one. It was probably my top disappointing of the year and it put me off trying others by him. Recently however, I've decided to give him another chance, since there are so many fans in the book blogging community. I think I'll try The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

  4. This was my first Murakami, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I skim-read the 'too much sex' for when I saw the movie, I was quite unprepared for the number of graphic scenes it had!

    Norwegian Wood's not my favourite Murakami, by any stretch of the imagination - but I did enjoy it enough to want to read all of Murakami, so, I think that in itself says a lot.

  5. I'm going to second The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I've read four or five of Murakami's novels and none have come close to that one. He's definitely an odd bird.