Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Book Review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

When he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. Immediately he is transported back almost twenty years to his student days in Tokyo, adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire - to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marches into his life and he has to choose between the future and the past.

I read this book as part of the Eclectic Reader challenge. One of the challenge categories is 'translated fiction'. For this I chose Murakami's famous novel Norwegian Wood because it was one of those novels I'd always heard about but never got around to reading.

Norwegian Wood is well written and engaging. I enjoyed reading it. It's a love story at its core but it is also much more than that. It's a coming-of-age story, a story of discovery. It's a story about memory and looking back on life to ponder who Toru used to be and what made him the person he is now. It's an exploration of those youthful experiences that guided the formation of his personality. In this respect it's an easy story to relate to.

Even though the novel is set in Tokyo, the location isn't richly described. The city really could have been any city, which does allow the reader to put their own imaginative stamp on the place as they read. And while music plays an integral part in Toru's experiences, Murakami's writing isn't particularly melodic or lyrical; he connects the reader to the music by listing a lot of song titles throughout the story. I've read other novels where music is such a powerful force in the story that it actually becomes another character. For me, Murakami doesn't manage this, but what his writing does do is to give the reader room to conjure their own memories of, or feelings about, specific songs.

I must say that at times I struggled to accept the accuracy of the English translation. I've been to Japan, but I didn't feel I was reading a book set in Japan nor featuring Japanese students. The book felt way too American - the culture, the language etc seemed out of place for a novel set in Tokyo. For example - sarcasm is used a lot by Toru and his friends; I don't see that type of humour being part of Japanese culture. Murakami may very well have intentionally written an Americanised novel, but because I can't read the original Japanese version I wondered if perhaps this was more a product of the translation process.

Norwegian Wood is a touching, melancholic story about first love, loss and self-discovery. It may be a simple narrative of one man's youth but it does deal with harsh realities such as death, uncertainty, mental illness, isolation and fear. There is a lot to grab onto in this story, a lot to think about. However, I felt these weighty issues weren't developed as deeply as they could have been. I wasn't blown away by the story, but I did enjoy reading about Toru because he's a likeable guy. This was a good introduction to the work of Murakami, but it's been said that Norwegian Wood is actually a departure from his usual style so I'd like to read another of Murakami's novels to see how his writing has evolved.



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