Many would argue that it was the release of Norwegian Wood back in 1987 that really made Haruki Murakami a household name in the world of literature, and considering the book sold over 4 million copies in Japan alone, it’s hard to argue against this.
Murakami’s unique writing style and beautiful prose and descriptions are incredibly captivating and such a joy to read, especially when it comes to Norwegian Wood where he manages to touch on some very serious elements and themes in such a delicate way.
With that being said though, with so many people labeling Norwegian Wood as a ‘modern classic’, why exactly is this book so beloved? Keep reading as we take an in-depth look at this incredibly influential and beloved novel, and what makes it so captivating!
Overview Of The Novel
Thirty seven year old Toru Watanabe, a man who now lives a fairly comfortable and mundane life, is suddenly thrown back into the past when he begins reminiscing after hearing a cover of the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” while in Hamburg airport.
The story then follows Toru’s life as a freshman at Waseda University, a school that is currently playing a big part in the Tokyo student revolutions.
Despite the students seeming so sure in their political beliefs, we begin to see that many of them are lost, confused, and struggling to find purpose in a war-torn 1960s Japan.
When Toru strikes up a close relationship with Naoko, a shy and timid girl who is the former girlfriend of Toru’s best friend, Kizuki, the two begin to meet frequently and confide in one another.
Outside of this relationship, Toru is also befriended by the class womanizer, Nagasawa, who begins encouraging Toru to go out on the town to get drunk and pick up older women, something he can’t tell if he feels comfortable with or not.
As the story progresses, the cast of characters grows ever larger, all of which are different ages and have very different aspirations for life, and who all must find some sort of purpose in a world filled with sadness and death.
They are also all very different in their characteristics, which helps feed into the themes of denial and regret by seeing how different people interpret the world around them in their own ways.
About The Author
Haruki Murakami is a very recognizable name nowadays to anyone even remotely interested in fictional literature, with one of the biggest reasons being his incredible writing style where he seamlessly blends philosophy into his character dialogue.
He was born in Kyoto 4 years after World War 2 ended, so he experienced the turmoil and cultural devastation the country faced at that time from an extremely young age, something he uses as a contextual backdrop in many of his novels.
While Murakami has gone on record saying that these novels were “immature” and “flimsy” in his eyes, they nonetheless helped him establish a core fanbase that would grow massively with the release of Norwegian Wood in 1987.
Since Norwegian Wood, Murakami has gone on to release 9 novels, with a third set to be released at some point in 2024.
His writing quality has only improved as the years have gone by, with him winning some incredibly prestigious awards for his works including the World Fantasy Award, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Jerusalem Prize.
Review Of Norwegian Wood
There are many reasons why Norwegian Wood is considered by many to be one of the best novels ever written, and a lot of it comes down to just how effortlessly Murakami is able to explore two worlds, the one within our heads and the tangible world around us.
It’s not just Toru who struggles with integrating his emotions with the society around him, it’s also the case with every other character we meet, and as we witness their pain and insecurities, they become much more human and relatable to us as readers(see also: The Uncommon Reader Review).
With more characters being introduced so frequently, it also makes for some excellent pacing, ensuring the story never slows down and remains engaging from start to finish.
The way Murakami is able to use the environments, especially the frosty winter and dark isolated forests, to build upon the major themes presented in the story is an extremely impressive writing technique that pulls you in immediately.
Of course, on top of all this, you also have the backdrop of Japan itself and the unsettling imagery Murakami uses to describe the state it was in politically, socially, and culturally after World War 2, a backdrop which in many ways symbolizes the character’s internal struggles.
Themes In Norwegian Wood
Let’s take a deeper look at some of the major themes that drive the story of Norwegian Wood:
Murakami describes to us readers how, after the devastation caused by the war, the society he was born into was taught to hide and deny death, even though it was a natural part of life.
When Toru and Naoko build a relationship for example, they never even mention the fact that Kizuki, Naoko’s past lover and Toru’s best friend, had actually taken his life during his senior year, until much later in the story.
This is not because they are bad or cold-hearted characters, it is simply what they are taught, and as the story progresses, both of them only experience more death and personal loss in their lives.
Murakami manages to beautifully tell a tale about how death doesn’t need to be denied and instead, can be viewed as a natural and inexorable occurrence that we should recognize and embrace to enjoy our lives without regret.
The theme of teenage and childhood innocence being lost in a cold world is a very common thematic approach to many popular books, such as The Catcher in the Rye for example, but Murakami manages to capture this so well by actually using absence in his dialogue.
When the charming and sharp-tongued Kazawa starts inviting Toru out on the town, we can tell Toru feels uncomfortable and unsure of these flings and temporary relationships he is making, just by the lack of approval or excitement he gives the reader.
This is another great example of Murakami’s unique writing style and just one instance of the internal struggle many of the characters have with growing up and witnessing the world as it really is.
Nearly all of the characters we meet in the story struggle with finding what their purpose is in life, a feeling that leads many of them into feelings of depression and disillusionment with the world.
This isn’t just reflected in characters like Toru and Naoko though who struggle to make sense of the world around them, but even in characters like Kazawa who many readers argue only finds his purpose through being narcissistic.
Many have dubbed Norwegian Wood an ‘existentialist novel’ because of how heavily it centers around these feelings of hopelessness and finding meaning in others, something which does come full circle by the end of the book.
Sex And Love
Following the heavy themes of existentialism and finding purpose, a big way Murakami portrays this is through sex and love, and more specifically, how the characters struggle to differentiate the two.
There’s a lot of sex featured in the book, but rather than putting it in purely for shock value or to add some raunchy scenes to a story, Murakami makes the act a lot more meaningful as the story goes on.
When the book begins, Toru is still growing up and sees sex as something purely hedonistic and even something to brag about, just like the highly successful Kazawa, but as he begins a relationship with a girl he genuinely cares for, his view on it begins to change.
In many ways, Murakami tells the readers that the key to escaping existentialism and enjoying life for what it truly is, is by accepting the beauty of love and all the feelings that come with it, whether that’s with a partner or a family member.
Imagery In Norwegian Wood
Aside from the school, parts of the story are set in multiple different forests and woods which are supposed to symbolize the isolated and troubled emotions of teenagers going through phases of disillusionment and depression.
Murakami expertly describes the forests as being dark, dreary, and very hard to navigate, and many characters will make constant references to being trapped in these forests where no one will ever find them.
Murakami was far ahead of his time when it came to using effective imagery to portray mental illness and feelings of loneliness and depression among adolescents, which is probably a big reason why the book was so popular among Japanese youth at the time.
All in all, Norwegian Wood is a book that is more than deserving of all the praise that it has received, being a truly groundbreaking novel that manages to tell a beautiful story about finding hope and meaning in a world that can seem so cruel at such a young age.
There are definitely a lot of heavy themes in Norwegian Wood that readers should be aware of before going into it, but if you want to experience a truly life-changing story, it’s a book that you definitely have to read at least once!