This is one of the more magical and sensual books that I've read this year. Toru Watanabe is a Tokyo student at the end of the sixties. Western culture abounds (the novel is named after the Beatles' tune). 'Norwegian Wood' is Naoko's favourite song, and one which she pays her friend Reiko to play. It's a song which seems destined to torment her for the rest of her life. In his own subtle way, Murakami suggests to us the power of great art. This novel also belongs to that class. Once you've started to read 'Norwegian Wood', you'll become addicted to it. Murakami creates characters who reside in your mind as real beings. They're people who you will come to love. His fiction also transcends cultural barriers, in that 'Norwegian Wood' could have been set anywhere. Its emotional centre is that of painful adolescence, so any casual reader will have a great deal to identify with the main protagonists from the off. Just as Toru is forced into the past by the merest note of 'Norwegian Wood', this book will also compel you to confront your own past, the people that you have loved and maybe lost. The sixties student rebellions seem to have shook almost every part of the world, and Murakami's novel does feature such a revolt. No doubt the fuel blockades currently afflicting Britain and Europe will be similarly remembered in future years. In one revealing scene, Murakami has Midori articulate that great truth that when higher education chooses to debate the class struggle, it often does so in terms which exclude the working class (note my indoctrinated and ironical use of 'articulate'). Of course, I read a translation (in the Harvill edition, presented like a box of Cubans, "hand-rolled on the thighs of maidens"), but the power of Murakami's prose shines through. Toru extols the exquisite prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Murakami cannot have had a better writing tutor, where every word is a wonder in itself.
Naoko and Reiko have decided to exile themselves away from the mental torments of everyday life in a remote mountain community. Toru comes to visit Naoko, his sometime lover. Together, they share the memory of Kizuki, Noako's boyfriend, who inexplicably killed himself at the age of 17. Naoko has far more difficulty expressing her feelings than Toru, something which he finds both beguiling and painful. Under the loving care of Reiko, Toru and Naoko try to explore their feelings for each other. What was the truth behind their night of shared passion? Reiko believes that Toru may be the best tonic for Naoko (such great irony), but Naoko has her own reasons for pushing Toru away, despite knowing how much she needs him. In one telling episode, Naoko reveals herself to Toru as she sleepwalks, a troubled soul reaching out for help.
Denied physical contact with the one woman he really cares about, Toru satisfies his bodily needs with a series of one night stands, out on the town in the company of his twisted but content friend Nagasawa. But even as his body is sated, Toru cannot help but feel disgust. However, his torment is tempered by Midori, who pushes her way into his life. She does not seem to mind that Toru is alienated, and far from content to be the Norm. She loves the peculiar way Toru talks and almost consults him as if he were a guru, demanding that he relate his carnal fantasies to her. Midori has been to an all-girl school, and seems to have an endless fascination for those pleasures which she has yet to experience. However, she too has her pain and a peculiar kind of madness. Inevitably, it seems, Toru is torn between his feelings for the inaccessible Naoko, and Midori's passion for him... Will Toru be forced down the path that has led so many of his friends to self-oblivion?
'Norwegian Wood' is a great, powerful novel. The kind of art that stays with you for the rest of your life, the kind of music which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand tall, to force a shiver of delight and pain through your body, to make your mouth starch dry. There are excellent characters, from the lowly Storm Trooper, to the warm and loving Reiko. There is also great subtlety, surprising in such an emotional novel. This is, above all, a very sensual work of art, with every feeling touched upon and plucked with the greatest of skill.
AuthorTrek Rating: 10/10.
Kevin Patrick Mahoney