Book review and notes: Norwegian Wood

Norwegian WoodNorwegian Wood
by  Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin

was published in 1987
Vintage Books

Genre: Literary fiction
296 pages


As you may know, Haruki Murakami is my favorite Japanese author. I have read several books by him, for instance his latest Killing Commendatore.

So I couldn’t resist when I discovered through Still an Unfinished Person that there was such a thing as a Murakami Online Book Club. They were reading Norwegian Wood, so I joined, as I don’t recall actually reading it.

Here below, I’ll share my review, plus some notes and quotes.
Skip my notes if you haven’t read the book and want to avoid spoilers.

Norwegian Wood is I believe the book that made Murakami famous, at least in the West. The cultural reference of the title may have had a role in it, too.

HOWEVER, this is definitely not my favorite book by him, far from that even.
In some respects, Norwegian Wood did feel like a usual Murakami novel, with the knack he has for the flow of dialogs that seem so close to life, and for the incomplete resolution at the end of the book.
But otherwise, I didn’t like it that much. Probably because of the over emphasis on sex life (really, who needs to read Fifty Shades of Grey when you have Norwegian Wood??), and mostly, it felt too much like we were in real life, apart maybe from some passages in the sanatorium, and the very last paragraph.
In many other novels by him, I really like the fact that you feel right at the border between reality and un-reality, and you never know for sure where you are at. For me, this is THE Murakami signature. I didn’t feel it as present here.
This was confirmed by an expert member of the online group. Chameleonica commented back, saying, “I think this is the Murakami book that’s mostly rooted in realism”.

I started reading Norwegian Wood almost at the same time as The Gate, the last book of Natsume Soseki’s trilogy. All along this book, I was amazed at the number of parallels I could draw. Maybe I should remind you that Murakami considers Soseki as his favorite author, and he wrote a wonderful introduction to Sanshiro, that you can read in the Penguin Classics edition (ISBN13: 9780140455625).
So if there are points in common between Soseki’s and Murakami’s characters, it cannot be mere coincidence.

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That’s it really for my general thoughts.
If you are planning to read it soon, I’d advise you NOT to read the rest of this post, as there will be spoilers.

BUT if you have read it, your comments are most welcome.

The next book we’ll be reading is Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.


Chapter 1

I love the contrast at the beginning between what’s going on around him and in his mind:

People began unfastening their seatbelts and pulling baggage from the overhead lockers, and all the while I was in the meadow. I could smell the grass, feel the wind on my face, hear the cries of the birds. Autumn 1969, and soon I would be 20.

“One long streak of cloud hung pasted across a dome of frozen blue.”
I feel like I’m in a Natsume Soseki novel, with so much focus on the sky, but as the narrator specifies, “scenery was the last thing on [his] mind”, it’s all interiorized landscape, that comes back to him through memory almost twenty years later.

Fascinating passage on the working of memory, how Toru tries to remember Naoko.

Wow, what an ominous image of the wide-open mouth of the field well. It reminds me of the underground scene in Killing Commendatore.
And more ominous hints of Naoko’s mental illness.
The end of this chapter is quite dramatic: he loved her, but she didn’t love him.

From the get go, we can recognize the mastery of Murakami in his flowing dialogs, they always sound so real, so true to life.

Chapter 2

Description of Toru’s dorm and roommate.
Toru is a new young student in Tokyo, like Sanshiro, by Natsume Soseki.
The tree near the gate, like in The Gate, also by Natsume Soseki.

HM mentions the Japanese anthem. I’m afraid I was not familiar with it. I found this youtube video with English lyrics. It’s so beautiful. Interesting comments point to the fact that it was originally a love song. We are from the war vocabulary of the French anthem.

OMG, HM also mentions radio calisthenics, ラジオ体操, rajio taisō, literally, “radio exercises”. According to Wikipedia, “they are are warm-up calisthenics performed to music and guidance from radio broadcasts. They are popular in Japan and parts of Mainland China and Taiwan”. I have actually been doing them every day with this video.  I think it’s the first time I see them mentioned in a novel.

Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life.“

Again this seems to me a very Soseku-like theme, for instance in And Then:
“With his hand still on his chest, he tried to imagine the warm, crimson blood flowing leisurely to this beat. This was life, he thought. Now, at this very moment, he held in his grasp the current of life as it flowed by. To his palm it felt like the ticking of a clock. But it was more, it was a kind of alarm that summoned him to death.”
And I believe this is also part of Zen spirituality.
This sentence is repeated near the end of the book.
It does struck me at the large place given to death (and suicide) in this novel

Chapter 3

Toru has no ambition. “There was nothing I wanted to be”  like for Soseki’s heroes.
I happen to be reading Soseku’s trilogy at the same time. It’s a very interesting experience to be reading both at the same time, knowing that Soseku is one of Murakami’s favorite authors.

Could be my favorite quotation of the week:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

Chapters 5-7

Cool description in chapter 6 of the trip to the sanatorium where Naoko is being treated. 

He meets Reiko, both a long-term patient and a music teacher/therapist, and Naoko’s roommate.

Reiko suggest another trio, a healing triangle this time. Will it work?

“Streaming in through the window, the moonlight cast long shadows and splashed the walls with a touch of diluted Indian ink.”

There’s a whole explanation in the chapter on the first visit to the sanatorium about deformities. “‘Most people go about their lives unconscious of their deformities”. People at the therapy center highlight that we are all sick, one way or another, but the difference can be whether this has ever touched your consciousness or not.

Naoko explains things of her past to Toru. Her sister also committed suicide, and she found her. Plus some cases in their father’s family.

This sanatorium place was really spooky for me.
Healing oneself by helping others heal, sounds right. And the place lives on homegrown fruit and veggie, which all seems rather healthy. And yet, it seems very unhealthy and creepy at the same time. Amazing how HM can convey this feeling little by little.

Naoko’s weird view of having to pay for their younger innocent way of living. Nature vs. society, also a Soseki-an theme,

And all along Reiko’s narrative, I was wondering all along if she was making it up. HM loves making his readers wonder.

In Chapter 7, Toru accompanies Midori to visit her dying father at the hospital. Midori shares with him all her insane sexual fantasies.

Chapters 8-9

I didn’t really note many important things for me, I mean important to me in these 2 chapters. But I loved this quote on languages:

“Languages are like games. You learn the rules for one, and they all work the same way.”

Chapters 10-11

I liked how the image of the swamp in which Toru is stuck in kept coming in chapter 10. For me, he really has many aspects in common with Sanshiro (by Natsume Soseki), so lost and stuck at the same age, leaving his small place to go to university.

At one point, I was even wondering if Toru was going to become insane himself, as he was starting having the same communication problems as Naoko.

Several in our online group highlighted the importance of the journey vs. the final destination in Japanese culture. About that, I was not surprised to see Toru leave for a long journey. It reminded me again of a Natsume Soseki character in his trilogy, this time in the novel The Gate. It seems to me also in the tradition of wanderers, thinking of Basho and other haiku authors here.
And here and there in this novel, I felt there was some Zen teaching popping up, like in this quotation about the importance of the present moment:

“Stop what you’re doing this minute and get happy”

VERDICT: Some great dialogs, but it was too realistic for me to enjoy as a usual Muramaki book. Plus there were too many hyper detailed sex scenes.

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Did you enjoy it as much as other books by Murakami?



19 thoughts on “Book review and notes: Norwegian Wood

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