A story of a young man’s unrequited love, tangled in a web of death, mental illness, and the impact of sexual experience upon a person’s life. I was unaware that that last point would play such an important role in the story of Norwegian Wood, which made reading on the bus next to an older women conspicuously reading over my shoulder a bit of an interesting experience. In general, however, this novel focuses on the confusing time that is a person’s late teens, and how certain moments have the power to stay with us all through our lives.
Norwegian Wood begins with a 37-year-old Toru Watanabe, suddenly being hit with a wave of nostalgia, and memories from the 1960s when he was around 17-20 years old. And the trigger of these memories? An orchestral version of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”.
The rest of the novel is where Toru recounts all that occurred during this early and altering time in his life. It all begins when Toru’s best friend, Kizuki, commits suicide when he is 17, which profoundly influences both Toru and Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko. Not feeling as though he has many friends, Toru soon begins studying at University in Tokyo, leading a reasonably isolated existence there. One day, he happens upon Naoko, and the two begin walking together throughout the city. Over time, Toru develops feelings for Naoko, yet she seems hesitant to reciprocate them. Eventually, on Naoko’s 20th birthday, the two end up sleeping together, in a moment of deep vulnerability on the part of Naoko. Soon after, and due to some evident emotional issues that need to be worked out, Naoko quits college and goes to a sanatorium.
While Naoko is gone from Toru’s life, he meets a young woman named Midori, who is almost the complete opposite of shy and self-conscious Naoko. The two have strange interactions, but come to care for one another, in a strange relationship that almost hovers between the realm of friendship and “relationship”. Meanwhile, Toru and Naoko have been exchanging letters, and Toru eventually decides to meet Naoko at her sanatorium. He meets both Naoko, and her new confidante, Reiko. While the three are together, they begin to share deep and personal things with one another. Reiko seems to believe that Naoko could be on her way to a full recovery from her mental afflictions.
Toru continues his young life, torn between his real world featuring his relationship with Midori, and with his other life that revolves around Naoko. He wants to keep holding on for Naoko and wait for her to come back to Tokyo, yet he is uncertain as to what he should do in regards to Midori, or even his life as a student. A cloud of death and guilt seems to surround Toru as he tries to find happiness for himself. But at what point does he need to figure out where he wants to go, or how exactly he is to move on from his past?
Norwegian Wood is quite soft and beautiful, in a way, particularly in the manner in which it addresses mental illness as a legitimate problem in many lives, as well as the fact that it can be dealt with in many different ways. The confusion and uncertainty about life that is experienced particularly at a young age also resonated with me, being in my early twenties myself. And yet, Toru’s insistence to keep himself isolated and disconnected from the world, particularly when people were reaching out to him (such as the manic-pixie-dreamgirl-ish Midori) left me saddened and wondering what was holding him back; was it really just his love for Naoko, which was founded on their connected loss of Kizuki? Death does have a profound impact on the living, which is another concept that was strongly addressed by this novel.
But did I like it? I think I did. Not all stories need big, dramatic acts and storylines. Many times, it is the simple, everyday issues of people’s lives that make for the most touching and interesting tales, with all the ins and outs of the human character. And for that reason, I enjoyed Norwegian Wood, though it may not have been quite what I expected (though to be honest, I’m not really sure what I expected when I began reading it, anymore).