Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

I finished this book over a week ago now and was hoping that time would help clarify my opinion, but I still feel uncertain about whether I enjoyed this book. Let me explain…

The book tells the story of Toru Watanabe during his college years. The book actually starts ten years later and the telling of the story is apparently a cathartic way for Watanabe to somehow deal with a difficult time in his life. Exactly what is still affecting this man in his twenties remains unclear. However, Watanabe has plenty to ponder. His friends are few but coincidentally suffer a high incidence of mental health issues and this poor man loses several loved ones to suicide.

When I first started this book, I thought I was going to love it. The first several chapters discuss memory – the odd things we remember, the tricks memory plays on us, and the links between apparently unassociated memories. I find this a fascinating subject. I have a memory as a child (over 20 years ago) in which I was at an airport to meet my mother returning home after an unexpected time away. I must have been very excited – I don’t remember my Mother going away at any other time, and don’t remember why she had to leave town then. However, the memory I have from that event is not of the greeting or the tears that must have followed, but of chewing a coffee stirrer while sitting in an airport lounge with my father. Whenever I use a coffee stirrer now, I immediately remember sitting next to my Dad in that airport lounge. I’m fascinated that there are events that seem so insignificant at the time, and yet are remembered vividly 20 years later. It makes me wonder whether a seeminly mundane moment from today will be remembered in another 20 years.  Murakami described that feeling perfectly for me when I haven’t heard it discussed before and it was one of those moments where I felt like I personally had connected with this author through the page. A special moment indeed and I thought I had found my new favorite author.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had after those first chapters. I would have loved for the theme of memory to continue more consistently through the book but instead it moved on. As already mentioned, a significant number of Watanabe’s friends suffered from mental health issues (depression, schizophrenia, suicide), although I find it difficult to call this a theme as there didn’t seem to be an obvious connection between these different characters. For me that meant it all felt a little far-fetched: what are the chances that so many of your friends would be independently affected in that way?

I’ve heard that Murakami is known for his unusual characters and strange plots, and that Norwegian Wood is actually one of his more realistic novels. I think I needed this book to be either more like realistic, or more strange, if that makes sense?  The way it was, I was never quite sold. I’m keen to try another of his books but I’ve been told that if you don’t love NW, it probably best to stop there. Would you agree? If not, what book would you recommend?

3.5 stars out of 5

Along the lines of memory, I read a quote from Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island today that I can relate to:

“I ordered a coffee and a little something to eat and savored the warmth and dryness. Somewhere in the background Nat King Cole sang a perky tune. I watched the rain beat down on the road outside and told myself that one day this would be twenty years ago.”

Are there any other books with a theme of memory that you think I’d enjoy? Someone has suggested Until I Find You, by John Irving. Any other recommendations?

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