Soul, Sadness and the Swinging Sixties

When Haruki Muraki wrote his masterpiece Norwegian Wood, he never anticipated the level of fame and recognition it would receive universally.

While this quite notably caused him a great deal of dismay, I believe it is an apt celebration of a stunning and affecting piece of literature.

Set in Tokyo during the late sixties, Norwegian Wood details the story of Toru Watanabe, a man facing a dilemma. Cynical and introspective but ultimately kind and selfless, Toru finds himself entertaining the attentions of two girls. One is Naoko, the long-time love of his life, a girl who was very much in love with Toru’s best friend until he committed suicide. And two, the effervescent and incorrigible Midori Kobayashi, a girl from university who seems brimming with life.

Choosing between them is hard enough, but when he discovers Naoko’s fragile mental state, he finds his love for her becomes tied up in guilt and obligation. Toru ultimately finds he must choose to fight for a past he is not ready to leave behind or a future filled with endless possibility.

Based in a period of hipsters, pretentiousness and abstract thought, Murakami’s characters could easily have become a caricature of free love and beatniks. However, with the sensitivity of Toru, the unpredictability of Naoko and the blunt honesty of Midori, they are a spectrum of emotional complexity and depth. None of the trio feel like 2D characters, and the rich histories of each character only serve to further explore their profundities.

However, Murakami’s strength in this novel is, without a doubt, the character of Midori. While her sheer enthusiasm and wit is totally infectious, our warmth towards her grows when we begin to see the side she attempts to hide from all but Toru, the insecure, fragmented and deeply emotional girl who wants someone to love her with all the intensity that she loves them. There is a quality that is universally accessible about her as a character, and she gives the novel a humility that might otherwise be just out of reach.

A criticism of this novel has been the lyrical nature of Murakami’s prose, but this strikes me as a goliath bone of contention. His use of prosaic language is perfect for this story. It is not a straightforward and uncomplicated plot with a clear-cut message. It is a wandering, searching narrative that encourages you to find your own poignancy in its faceted storyline. It offers beauty to the reader, not only through the emotions and honesty of the characters, but through the poetry of Murakami’s language.

This book feels like home. It is the novel on my shelf with the broken spine, the thumbed pages and the back cover flapping off unceremoniously. It is the book I find myself ever returning to. It is the story I seek out when I feel sad or lost or alone. There is truth to be found in this novel ­– the truth of men and women and love – that can be universally understood and, though Murakami himself was ill pleased with the fame he garnered, as far as I am concerned, that is simply the price of genius.

Book review by Pippa Henly

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