“Norwegian Wood” is a 1987 novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, which follows the story of Toru, who reflects upon his life experiences while in college. Through his interactions with various characters and his evolving relationships, mostly with two troubled young women, the novel touches on themes of loss, loneliness, identity, love, and death. The title of the book is named after the famous Beatles song. In this article, you will not only find a short summary but also my personal book review.
“Norwegian Wood” is a coming-of-age story set in late 1960s Tokyo and tells the story of Toru Watanabe, who reflects upon his memories from his college years when he was 18 years old. After he begins to reconnect with a girl from his past, he reconstructs his memories and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. With its themes of love, loss, and identity, the novel has resonated with readers for decades. I read this book in 2023 and it is as relevant as ever.
The novel follows Toru as he struggles to balance his feelings of grief, confusion, and desire while in college. He meets two very different women: Naoko, whom he finds himself falling in love with quickly, but who is also still consumed by the death of her boyfriend; and Midori Kobayashi, a lively girl who gives Toru joy and insight. As his relationships with both girls intensify and evolve, Toru must come to terms with the past and set himself free from his own pain.
The novel has been praised for its thoughtful exploration of unrequited love, loss, and the search for identity. It is a powerful story about understanding pain and ultimately finding hope even amid life’s difficulties.
The main characters of the book consist of one major male character, Toru, and another college friend, Nagasawa. Toru narrates the story in the book. We witness the events through his eyes and it has been said that some of the events are inspired by real-life events of Murakami’s life. Then there are three female characters who play an important part in the story and Toru’s life.
The protagonist of the novel, Toru Watanabe is a college student who is deeply affected by the suicide of his close friend, Kizuki. Toru is intelligent and introspective, but also somewhat passive and indecisive. Throughout the novel, he grapples with his complicated feelings for two women, Naoko and Midori, as he tries to navigate the challenges of young adulthood.
Naoko is a beautiful and troubled young woman who was Kizuki’s girlfriend before his death. She suffers from severe depression and spends time in a sanatorium to receive treatment. Toru becomes romantically involved with Naoko, but their relationship is complicated by her mental health struggles and the unresolved feelings they both have for Kizuki.
Midori is a vivacious and outgoing young woman who meets Toru at a university social event. Unlike Naoko, she is not burdened by the weight of past traumas, but she still faces her own challenges in life. Midori is attracted to Toru, but he struggles to fully commit to her because of his feelings for Naoko.
Reiko is a middle-aged woman and the oldest of the female characters. She becomes Naoko’s roommate at the sanatorium. She is a gifted musician and helps Naoko cope with her depression by playing music with her. Reiko is also kind and supportive towards Toru, who becomes a regular visitor at the sanatorium.
Nagasawa is one of Toru’s closest friends from college. He is confident, charismatic, and enjoys the company of women. Nagasawa is in a long-term relationship with a woman named Hatsumi, but he frequently cheats on her and encourages Toru to do the same. Although Toru is initially drawn to Nagasawa’s carefree attitude, he begins to question the morality of their behavior and the true nature of their friendship
Major themes in Norwegian Wood are the idea of love, loss, and change. All of the characters in the novel deal with lost love and have to learn how to cope with their emotions and find a way to move on. The story examines these emotions in different ways, whether it’s Toru’s inability to shake his feelings for Naoko or Midori’s struggle to move on from her loneliness.
Another theme is friendship—the idea of people coming together, aiding each other, and forming connections that stay with them even as life changes around them. Especially Watanabe is valued for sticking around as a true friend no matter how difficult things get.
In addition, Murakami explores the idea of escape and identity. Even though the characters are young, they all try to find ways to cope with their feelings, whether it’s by running and hiding or through drugs and alcohol. Toru struggles to understand who he is without Naoko, while at the same time recognizing that he can’t stay in the same place as her forever.
Lastly, Murakami Murakami writes and explores grief and death. The characters are forced to grapple with losing someone they love as well as the inevitability of their own mortality.
Throughout the novel, they are forced to confront these issues head-on, ultimately striving to make sense of them in order to keep pushing forward.
Norwegian Wood was met with generally positive reviews upon its release and is now considered by many to be one of Murakami’s best works. If not his best work. Critics have praised the novel for its exploration of complex themes in a very intelligent and realistic way. While some have criticized the novel as melancholic or overly depressing, most praise it for its depiction of human connection and emotion.
Norwegian Wood was first released in Japan in 1987 and has since been translated into more than 50 languages. Many have interpreted the novel as an autobiographical story, citing similarities between Murakami’s own life and the themes explored in the book.
Characters like “Watanabe” have been read as alter egos of Murakami, a view which Murakami himself has interestingly both confirmed and denied. Whatever the case may be, Norwegian Wood is widely regarded as one of Murakami’s most successful works and remains beloved by fans all over the world.
I really loved reading the book. Living in Japan at the time helped me to better understand Japanese culture and also the character in this book. It sparked philosophical thoughts in me about the high suicide rate in Japan, which is usually blamed on high work pressure. Reading Murakami made me feel there was more to it than just work pressure, there is something rooted in the culture.
One of my thoughts for example is that Japan has a long history of let’s call it ‘ normalization of suicide’. One can think about the “Kamikaze” (Interesting book’ Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History door Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney) pilots or “Harakiri” in Japan’s medieval times, where honor is more important than life itself.
Another aspect I think might play a role is the high level of fantasy in Japan. Of course, there is all the anime and Gibli, but also Disney is hugely popular not only amongst children but also adults.
There is also a famous Syndrom which is called Paris syndrome. This basically means young Japanese women create such an idealistic image of originally Paris in their heads (Romantic, all men are nice and gorgeous).
They tend to go all in. They dream about Paris every day. They go and study French. They are already picturing themselves getting married to a French guy. They love everything French, French chocolates, french cookies, and cafes. They usually make friends and spend time with other like-minded France lovers. They buy French clothing brands. All this time they do not check in with reality once and they are basically spending their life in a fantasy world they create for themselves.
This goes on for years until they have saved enough to make the trip to actual Paris. Arriving here is the first time in their life they actually check in with reality. Paris can be dirty. Paris has thieves and conmen. A lot of homeless and refugees.
Maybe people are more rude than they imagined. It is all one major disappointment. When these girls arrive back in Japan, they are crushed and actually need to see a psychiatrist to help them recover. Some of them, unfortunately, do not. This is referred to as the Paris syndrome but of course, also applies to other aspects. It is about creating a fantasy world for yourself and falling into depression when you find out that reality is nothing like your fantasy.
Back to Murakami and the theme of Suicide, I believe these last two mentioned elements, the normality of suicide and the Paris syndrome, plays a huge role in the high suicide rates in Japan. Murakami’s writing to me seems like a great reflection of this part of Japanese culture and I greatly enjoyed his writing style.
Reading Norwegian Wood was a great pleasure to me despite the darker themes. I think that Murakami’s vivid writing style is one of my favorites and I appreciate much of Murakami’s work. Norwegian Wood compares a little to me to Fitzgerald from The Great Gatsby. A book that also explores illusion versus reality.