Haruki Murakami’s exceptional 1987 bildungsroman, Norwegian Wood, set in a late 60s Tokyo rife with political unrest, tells a story of love, loss and personal growth through the voice of protagonist Toru Watanabe. Abundant with (particularly musical) references to western pop culture, Murakami transports the reader to an era and location generally unfamiliar to us, and yet allows us to completely and utterly identify with almost all the characters in the novel. Norwegian Wood recounts the memories of Toru Watanabe’s university years, provoked by him hearing an orchestral version of the Beatles’s 1965 song of the same name on an aeroplane, which leads to him recollecting his romantic struggles, caught between sheer infatuation with the beautiful yet profoundly emotionally troubled Naoko from his teenage years and the cheerful, happy-go-lucky Midori whom he meets at university. Murakami’s novel provides spectacular scenographic contrast when talking about Naoko and Midori, with the former’s narrative primarily set in an idyllic sanatorium in the mountains around Kyoto, whilst the latter’s is set in a poorer area in Tokyo. The chapters containing Toru and Naoko’s conversations in the sanatorium clearly allude to Thomas Mann’s 1924 masterpiece The Magic Mountain, in which a number of curious interactions take place between a group of patients representative of the citizens of pre-war Europe in a sanatorium in Davos.
The aspects of Norwegian Wood which appeal to me as a reader are plentiful; firstly I must admit that as a die-hard fan of the Beatles and many of their contemporaries (Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Doors and so forth), the novel’s endless musical references perpetually whet my aural appetite. The music in Murakami’s novels isn’t merely present in order to augment a chapter, but rather it is the central fulcrum upon which the stories and conversations revolve. Furthermore, Murakami’s relatively simple and altogether unpretentious style of writing lets a profoundly relatable line of narration dominate the text.
Narrated in the first person by Toru, Murakami emphatically exposes so many of the shortcomings of the stereotypical young adult male’s mind, many of which I’ve come to identify in myself over the time I’ve spent at university: even though I can’t claim to have experienced the particular circumstances affecting Toru in the novel, the writing is extremely effective at allowing the reader a remarkable empathy with the narrator. Norwegian Wood is the most relatable bildungsroman I’ve ever read, evoking imagery and themes which wouldn’t seem exceptionally out of place in an early Woody Allen film such as Annie Hall or Manhattan, but in the somewhat less familiar environment of 60s student-protests dominated Tokyo. I couldn’t possibly recommend the book enough, and I consider it to be an essential formative reading experience for any young adult.