Book Review – Norwegian Wood

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Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami is a coming-of-age story of Toru Watanabe, set in the late 1960s in Tokyo during the main character’s early student life. Toru narrates the story himself. Having lost his close friend, Kizuki, to suicide, Toru moves out of his hometown in Kobe and to Tokyo to study theater, which he clearly isn’t really interested in. Their lives in those days have a background context of a weak student revolution which fizzles out too soon, only to reveal the hypocrisy of the people leading it.

Here in Tokyo, Toru once accidentally bumps into Naoko, his deceased friend’s girlfriend. Naoko, if not more, is clearly as affected by Kizuki’s death as Toru (only to know later that Kizuki isn’t the only close one Naoko has lost to suicide). Naoko is broken and in dire need of someone’s emotional support in order to heal. And here comes ToruToru & Naoko share a bond, albeit a sad one, a bond strengthened by the death of the third partner of their group. They spend multiple Sundays together, wandering through the streets of Tokyo and, as one may expect, Toru falls for her. Unfortunately, that is where things take the melancholic path further down hill.

Naoko ends up in an institution called Ami Hostel up the hills, an hour from the city of Kyoto. Ami Hostel is a sophisticated version of (to put it subtly) a mental hospital. It’s secluded, clean, peaceful, and more of a community living where the lines between doctors & patients are blurred. While back in Tokyo, Toru finds Midori Kobayashi, his ‘History of Drama’ classmate. Midori, despite her own multiple problems — family, boyfriend, her family bookstore — to name a few, helps Toru to live through his lonely days, while he still yearns for Naoko to reach out to him. Toru is equally attracted to both Naoko and Midori. The story progresses as he sways back and forth and spends time with Naoko and Midori alternatively. While in his mind he is always rooting for Naoko to come back to his life, he doesn’t allow him to register that fact that he loves & misses Midori equally well. Naoko is troubled deeply & doesn’t want to come back to Toru until she is in a much better shape while Midori hates the fact that Toru always prioritizes Naoko over her, even though Midori Toru have never discussed Naoko even once. This is a tough choice Toru has to make and a journey he’ll have to take in his mind moving from Naoko to Midori or vice versa. What choice does he make? Do read the book to find out.

The two women in Toru’s life couldn’t have been more contradictory — One doesn’t speak much, the other doesn’t stop at all. One goes all out in showing affection for Toru while the other never confesses even though Toru keeps asking for it. Both have seen death, grief and loss, up close and personal, but one gets accustomed to it, jokes about it while the other gets crushed by it.

In the end, Toru has to make a choice between Naoko and Midori. Before he decides, you would have definitely made up yours. It’s not a grey area anymore. Norwegian Wood is a love story, with some ecstatic, arousing moments and with some dark, melancholic, heart wrenching ones as well — just like life, as one may say.

Bottom line, we will lose the people we love, friends and lovers will fall out of our lives, and there will be mistakes we make in our lives or watch others make towards other people we won’t be able to rewrite, because that’s the power of time. It can only go forward, not back. The characters interacting with each other are nostalgic; they recount the times that made them to be the person they are today. The lessons from this book aren’t any easy pills to swallow, so if you’re intending for a happy-go-lucky read, then I’d probably request you to skip Norwegian Wood.