Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is a book I received from our work Kris Kringle. As a bookseller and prodigious reader (can I say that about myself or does it sound braggy?) no one ever buys me books. I totally get it. They’re not sure if I’ve already read something and they know that I know pretty precisely what I like and dislike. But still! There’s nothing nicer than getting a well-considered book as a gift. Now, where on earth would I find a group of people who feel the same way? At work, of course, where everyone reads more than the average bear and therefore doesn’t get books from anyone. Clearly this was the perfect environment to institute a  Book Kringle. The only amazing thing is that nobody thought of it before.

The lovely friend who gave me this book is a big fan of Murakami too and this one is her favourite. It’ apparently one of his early works but one that was only later translated into English. Most of the Murakami books I’ve read are the weird sci-fi/spec fiction ones so this was new to me as being pretty straight. It was so gorgeous though. It’s the relatively simple story of a young man who goes off to university after the suicide of his best friend. There he lives in a dorm, is indifferent to his classes and hangs out with some new people, including his dead friend’s girlfriend who is plenty troubled herself.

Norwegian WoodThere’s a weird sense of serenity mixed with foreboding in this story. Toru Watanabe goes to school, eats, occasionally has sex with girls, reads unpopular books and does his laundry on Sundays. He goes for walks around the city and countryside and I could so clearly these places. There was a clarity to Watanabe that was captured through in Murakami’s usual simple, precise, detail-oriented style. But as I said there’s a darkness in the background the whole time which adds depth and contrast to this meticulous, everyday life.

My only concern is a growing ambivalence at Murakami’s portrayal of women… I’ve heard some criticisms of the female characters in 1Q84 which I didn’t necessarily think were fair but overall there seem to be too many women who are either beautiful, child-like and virginal or quirky, loud and overtly sexual. I don’t know. I mean considering this is an earlier work it makes sense that this aspect, too, would be less nuanced but it did highlight something that keeps cropping up in the Murakami novels I’ve read. I guess I’ll just have to keep reading!

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