Review: Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Let me preface this by saying I know nothing of Japanese culture. I might recognise a stereotype—emphasis on the word might—but that’s it. So, if any point you feel like raving about how I just don’t get it, you’re probably right. I don’t. Instead I’m going to ask a few stupid questions and concentrate on the things I do know—like what I consider good storytelling.
Believe it or not, there was a time when I liked quiet novels, I still do, but it’s a rare book that hits me just right at the right time and changes my world. I kept wishing Norwegian Wood would be one of those books, but it was not to be. 
Toru is a middle aged man on a plane and hears a familiar song. Suddenly Toru is a young man studying in university in Tokio and he’s in love with a girl who never loved him. Toru has friends, good friends and bad friends. Toru has sex a lot. Toru is lost. 
This is a young man’s coming of age story, and this is a book about sex and suicide. Not necessarily in that order. I’m aware of the description that extols Murakami’s lively representation of the 1960’s Japan and the fascinating mix of east and admiration of all things American. Those things are true too, but unfortunately the majority of this book isn’t about what life was like in 1960’s; majority of this book is about an eighteen-to-twenty-year-old-man wanting to get laid. And when Toru Watanabe isn’t getting his leg over, the girls are talking about how wet they were with him or with someone else. It’s off putting to say the least.
And then there are the suicides. I think I counted four of them and that just made me think the author doesn’t know how to pick his moments. Or is suicide a huge problem in Japan? Are masses of young adults killing themselves there? If they are, this isn’t the book to highlight and address that problem. This isn’t a book that encourages people to stop and think what needs to be changed for kids to stop killing themselves. Not only did Murakami fail to pick and choose, he managed to trivialise a very serious issue. 
I’m not going to dignify the psychological break recovery portrayal with a comment.
Then there’s the romance aspect. With better characterisations I might agree that it was well done. There was a love triangle of sorts but it wasn’t about choosing the first shiny love of a character’s life but about choosing what was best for them in the long run. However, it was boring and it was trite. I could see the ending coming from a long way and the only thing that could’ve save the book and its rating for me would have been the how.
Had Toru’s epiphany and personal growth happened differently, I might have ended up liking this book, because that’s what I kept hoping for. I can see why others have liked the story. I liked the writing and in theory I liked the message. It’s not that long ago that I was going through some of these things and learning to be an adult,  but even then I had my priorities sorted differently. The shame of failing in school or life is nothing compared to the shame of hurting my family by hurting myself—like taking away my own life or running away. I had this figured out by the time I was twelve, so I have little sympathy for adults still lost on this issue. 
Sometimes people fall and need help to pick themselves up again. It’s a part of life, but I don’t think we should romanticise it. 
2 stars
Translation: Finnish, based on Jay Rubin’s English translation
Suom: Aleksi Milonoff
Series: N/A
Pages: 426 (hardcover)
Publisher: Tammi
ISBN: 9789513162962
Published: 2012 (orig. 1987)
Source: Library
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36 thoughts on “Review: Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

  1. Heidi@Rainy Day Ramblings says:

    I don't know much about the Japanese culture but suicide is often times considered a noble way out when you have disgraced your family…I guess I kind of thought that the belief went by the way side in modern times but perhaps not. I don't think i can handle a depressing read right now I already had a couple of rough reads this week 😦

  2. Chris says:

    That is a radically different cover than my edition has! I've had this book for years and just haven't been able to bring myself to read it. I read a lot of Marukami about 10 years ago, but just got tired of reading literary books…

  3. Amarië says:

    Well, Japanese authors do need time to get used to since the writing or how they approach something is really different. Murakami is sometimes overrated (personal opinion) and especially outside of Japan – when I once mentioned to a Japanese that Murakami was probably the most famous Japanese author in Estonia, the Japanese was very surprised. I've read about 4 books of his, with the highly acclaimed Kafka on the Shore still waiting. So far Norwegian Wood is my favourite of them but not a huge favourite.This cover is the movie cover.

  4. rameau says:

    I like to try different kinds of book just so I don't burn myself with my favourite genres. Although, surprisingly often I end up hating the classics and other books critics and award givers praise. I should try to remember that.

  5. rameau says:

    I'm not sure if you'd like it, but I'd definitely want to know what you'd think of it. Part of me hopes it's just my inability to understand the culture that made me dislike the book so.

  6. rameau says:

    Hara-kiri is the one stereotype I'm aware of and I can sort of extrapolate the reasons from that, but I still don't think Murakami did justice to the subject. Again, it could just be my cultural ignorance speaking.It's definitely not a happy book, but it might be worth taking a chance on in another situation.

  7. rameau says:

    The cover is of the Finnish translation that came out this summer. I still plan on giving Murakami another chance but I want to read a few facts first.

  8. rameau says:

    Do you have any recommendations for a soft landing or introduction to Japanese literature? I do want to try new things but knowing where to start is a bit tricky.

  9. Aarti says:

    I feel like EVERYONE is trying to read Norwegian Wood this year! I admit it's not the sort of book I'd have expected for you – I don't mean that I put you in a reading box, just that it seems to be a really polarizing book.I wonder if the fact that it was translated from a translation hurt it, too?

  10. rameau says:

    I'm pretty sure something was lost in translation both times. Usually I'm quite confident in out translators because I've read books where the translator has made the book better than the original, in my opinion. Having said that, I'd need to take a look at Jay Rubin's work to see if the "problem" stems from there. I'm currently trying to read Battle Royale's English translation and in part I'm struggling because the text just doesn't flow. I don't mean the story itself, I mean the writing. Japanese is obviously a difficult language to translate and right now the poor or less than brilliant translations are probably going to keep me from exploring Japanese literature further.

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