Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 1987

It's about: Our young protaganist, Toru Watanabe, is a college student in Toyko in the 1960's. Toru loves Naoko, a quiet, beautiful girl who cries a lot. Toru and Naoko have a complicated relationship. When they were 17, Naoko's boyfriend and Toru's best friend killed himself, and it deeply affected them oth. When Naoko goes off to live at a treatment center in the mountains to try and heal her emotional wounds, Toru meets Midori - an outspoken, dramatic girl with a pixie cut and many complications of her own.

I thought: The opening pages of this novel hooked me in immediately. Fittingly, I read them as I sat eating sushi by myself at my favorite Japanese restaurant. There were many things I admired about this book, one of them definitely being able to catch a glimpse into Japanese culture in Tokyo in the 60s, which was awesome - but I'm going to focus on two specifically: Murakami's ability to write incredible dialogue, Toru's sensitive character.

Ok. The dialogue. Dude, Murakami knows how to write dialogue. Trust me, I know it is EXTREMELY difficult to write dialogue that sounds natural and believable. Christina knows what I'm talking about - when dialogue is forced, it starts to sound overthought or, even worse, overwrought. (Remember the infamous overwrought blurb? Lol.) It's easy to over think your writing, but it's especially easy over think dialogue, because dialogue must not only show something of your writing but also of the character who is speaking it. Murakami NAILS it. It's totally the dialogue in this book that makes the characters so interesting. I've included some great examples below. Stick with me here.

By far the most interesting character to me, though, was Toru - yes, Toru, our young protaganist. Perhaps he was the most interesting character to me because he is the narrator of this book, so we get an extra look into how his brain works. Toru has a sensitive nature that was radically endearing to me. The BEST part of the book was when Toru went to visit Midori's father in the hospital. When they arrive, Midori notices that her sister brought some cucumbers for their dad to eat.
"Cucumbers?! What are these doing in here? ... I can't imagine what my sister was thinking. I told her on the phone exactly what I wanted her to buy, and I'm sure I never mentioned cucumbers! She was supposed to bring kiwifruit." 
"Maybe she misunderstood you," I suggested. 
"Yeah, maybe, but if she had thought about it she would have realized that cucumbers couldn't be right. I mean, what's a hospital patient supposed to do? Sit in bed chewing on raw cucmbers? Hey, Daddy, want a cucumber?" 
"No." said Midori's father.
Toru knows that Midori has had a rocky relationship with her father and that she is exhausted from taking care of him in the hospital every day. He suggests that she take a walk, that he'll sit with her father for a little while. So she goes. The situation has a lot of potential to be awkward and uncomfortable, since this is the first time Toru has ever met her father, who can't talk very well and seems to be very cranky. But Toru sits with him and tells him about school and the things he's interested in. Then,
"I'm going to eat some cucumbers if you don't mind," I said to Midori's father. He didn't answer. I washed three cucumbers in the sink and dribbled a little soy sauce into a dish. Then I wrapped a cucumber in nori, dipped it in soy sauce, and gobbled it down. 
"Mmm, great!" I said to Midori's father. "Fresh, simple, smells like life. Really good cucumbers. A far more sensible food than kiwifruit." I polished off one cucumber and attacked the next. ..."Would you like something to drink? Water? Juice?" I asked Midori's father. 
"Cucumber," he said. 
"Great," I said with a smile. "With nori?" 
He gave a little nod. I cranked up the bed again. Then I cut a bite-size piece of cucumber, wrapped it with a strip of nori, stabbed the combination with a toothpick, dipped it into soy sauce, and delivered it to the patient's waiting mouth. With almost no change of expression, Midori's father cruched down on the piece again and again and finally swallowed it. 
"How was that? Good, huh?" 
"Good," he said. 
He ended up eating the entire cucumber. When he had finished it, he wanted water, so I gave him a drink from the bottle. 
After awhile, Midori comes back, and they leave. Some other things happen. She thanks him for coming with her and asks him to come again next Sunday, and he agrees. But he doesn't go the next Sunday, because Midori's father dies that next Friday afternoon. In a letter to Naoko, Toru writes,
"I still have a vivid memory of the tiny crunching he made when he chewed his pieces of cucumber. People leave strange little memories of themselves behind when they die."
Oh, man. I loved this part of the book because it is so revealing of Toru's character. Midori is brusque in the way she talks to and about her father, possibly because she is resentful about taking care of his basic needs and the stress it puts on her.  Toru cares about Midori, and because he understands her on a deeper, emotional level, he knows that she loves her father regardless. Then, once she leaves on her walk, Toru is able to empathize with this total stranger who is in an incredibly vulnerable position. He doesn't talk down to him or even sit in awkward silence. And Midori's father responds to this, in his own small way. (By the way, Midori's father's dialogue isn't marked with normal quotation marks, but with angle brackets. This gives it a much more abrubt feel that is so fitting to this scene. It makes Midori's father feel further away and more vulnerable. I couldn't put those in the parts I quoted above, though, because blogger interprets it as html.)

I think Toru is so sensitive to others because of the pain he's felt in his own life. The opening pages of the book depicts a middle-aged Toru, eighteen years after the events of this novel, as he hears the song "Norwegian Wood" play over airplane speakers as his plane lands in Germany. The song brings back a flood of memories.
I straightened up and looked out the plane window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of what I had lost in the course of my life: times gone forever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again. 
A stewardess comes by and asks him if he is alright.
"I'm fine, thanks, I said with a smile. "Just feeling kind of blue."
"I know what you mean, she said. "It happens to me, too, every once in a while." She stood and gave me a lovely smile. "Well, then, have a nice trip. Auf Wiedersehen."
This is exactly what this book is about - the pain of losing a friend, losing loved ones, the pain of time passing by - and the way this pain draws people - often strangers - together in small moments that, though they may at first seem insignificant, make life meaningful.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: I hear this is a great place to start if you've never read Murakami before. Check out the Reading Pathways post over at Book Riot for some more suggestions. Also, here's a watching recommendation - the trailer for the film adaptation of Norwegian Wood that is set to be released in the US in January 2012. Yay!

Warnings: If you are uncomfortable in any way with descriptive sex scenes, this probably isn't the book for you. I hear that this is the most erotic of Murakami's novels - if that makes you uncomfortable, maybe start with one of his others. There are also a few swear words, including the c-word. (I hate that word.)

What I'm reading next: Almost done with Great Expectations by Charles Dickens