Toru Watanabe is looking back on the love and passions of his life and trying to make sense of it all. As his first love, Naoko, sinks deeper and deeper into mental despair, he is inexorably pushed to find new meanings and new love to survive.
With Norwegian Wood Murakami, best known as the author of off-kilter classics such as the Wind Up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard Boiled Wonderland, finally achieved widespread acclaim in his native Japan. The novel sold upwards of 4 million copies and forced the author to retreat to Europe, fearful of the expectations accompanying his new-found cult status.
The novel is atypical for Murakami: seemingly autobiographical, in the tradition of many Japanese "I" novels, Norwegian Wood is a simple coming of age tale set, primarily, in 1969/70, the time of Murakami's own university years. The political upheavals and student strikes of the period form the backdrop of the novel but the focus here is the young Watanabe's love affairs and the pain (and pleasure) of growing up with all its attendant losses, (self-)obsessions and crises.
The novel is split into two volumes and beautifully presented here in a "gold" box containing both the green book and the red book. Young Japanese fans became so obsessed with the work that they would dress entirely in one or other colour denoting which volume they most identified with. And the novel is hugely affecting, reading like a cross between Plath's Bell Jar and Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women, if less complex and ultimately less satisfying than Murakami's other, more allegorical, work. He captures the huge expectation of youth, and of this particular time in history, for the future and for the place of love in it. He also saturates the work with sadness, an emotion that can cripple a novel but which here underscores the poignancy of the work's rather thin subject matter. --Mark Thwaite