Under the skin

Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin

This is the book that turned Murakami from successful author to superstar and sent him running into hiding in the US. It’s certainly a more “straightforward”, accessible narrative than he is generally known for, but it is still undeniably, brilliantly him.

Toru tells us the story of his student days in Tokyo, from 1968 to 1970, and the friends and lovers who mattered to him and even changed him in those formative years. Against a backdrop of free love, student protests and Beatles songs, we learn how Toru’s best friend Kizuki killed himself when they were 17. A year later, completely by chance, Toru bumps into Naoko who had been Kizuki’s girlfriend since they were small children. Unsure of what to say to each other but united by their grief that holds them apart from the rest of the world, they start spending time together. Toru falls headlong in love with Naoko even while he knows she can never love him.

While Naoko’s difficulty in dealing with life gets worse and worse, Toru meets another woman, one who could not be more different. Where Naoko is delicate, feminine and non-communicative, Midori is a blaze of talkative modernity, with short hair and a tendency to get way-too-open about sex. She also has a boyfriend, albeit one Toru never meets, just as she never meets Naoko.

A large chunk of the start of this novel was a short story in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which I read quite recently, and this threw me at first. The language is beautiful, the characters so very detailed and real, the setting vividly alive but as Naoko and Toru held themselves apart, so I found myself at arm’s length from the story – observing rather than drawn in. It was really only with the introduction of Midori that this book came to life for me. I really loved her character. She is no more “ordinary” or run-of-the-mill than Toru or Naoko, but she has a joy and spirit that uplifted the story, even when terrible things were happening.

While there’s no surrealism or magical story twists here, what there is plenty of is Murakami’s uncanny ability to get under the skin of people and everyday life. Even when nothing much is happening, I was thoroughly enjoying every word. A simple description of daily life in a student dorm could have me laughing out loud, a casual conversation over a noodle lunch have me grinning in recognition. But there is also a lot of pain – the ordinary pain of growing up and facing adulthood plus the added pain of death, loss, unrequited love, psychological trauma. It’s a beautiful and moving story.

First published as Noruwei no mori in 1987 by Kodansha Ltd, Tokyo.
This translation published 2000 by the Harvill Press.

9 thoughts on “Under the skin

  1. Leeswammes (Judith) November 6, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    According to my notes, I loved this book. To be fair, I don’t actually remember a lot about it, except that indeed it is one of the more “normal” books.

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Nose in a book November 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Judith That’s one of the reasons I started this blog. Far too many books about which I remember nothing aside from a vague liked it or disliked it.

  3. satt melf November 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    i hope your opening line ‘…sent him running..’ is a deliberate pun on his running exploits.

    I’ve just been given a copy of IQ84 books one and two, which I’m looking forward to tackling. Although the main problem I can see is trying to figure out how to fit this in the bag I take to work (it’s around 700 pages).

  4. Nose in a book November 17, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    satt melf I gave that running book to my Mum. Not sure she really appreciated it. I’d love to read IQ84 but goodness knows when I’d find time. Retirement, maybe?

  5. Lloyd Jones November 18, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Great Review, Kate.

    Did you ever see the film? It is really good. The pacing is a bit off here and there but I guess thats true of Murakami’s writing sometimes, too. It looks amazing and the Jonny Greenwood score fits perfectly.

    Satt Melf – I finished 1q84 last week and yes lugging it to work was a pain in the ass but it feels great to carry a 300 page paperback around afterwards!
    Id be interested to see what others think. It is certainly more of the same from Murakami and wont disappoint fans. It has the same plodding narrative; descriptions of characters making food, constant analysing of situations by the protagonists themselves, a fantasy element rooted in the benality of life, the lonely single man making lunch and the enigmatic female….All the usual Murakami tropes.
    Its no “Kafka on the shore” or “Wind-up Bird” but he’s got his style and, god bless him, he’s sticking to it. You’ll never get any deep thoughts on the human condition with Murakami but what he does he does well.

    If you want my copy of Volume 1 and 2 you can have it, Kate. Your bookshelf looks a bit more able to cope with its bulk than my 4 shelves!! Im tackling Volume 3 next year and need to de-Murakami for a few reads!

    Talking of writers with distinctive tropes; Im reading Paul Austers “Leviathan” at the moment and, 80 pages in, it already blows 1q84 out of the water!

    Hope you and Tim are well and looking forward to Christmas?


  6. Nose in a book November 18, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Lloyd Hello! Not seen the film, no. It sounds worth watching. I just read a graphic novel version of an Paul Auster’s City of Glass and I am greatly intrigued. Hmm.

    I’ll mail you about the other stuff…

  7. Lloyd November 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Cool. Got your email…

    As for Auster; if you enjoyed/are intrigued by “The City of Glass” graphic novel then I would highly recommend his book “The New York Trilogy” of which “City of Glass” is 1 of the three stories. They all have the same themes of coincidence, identity, obsession and intriguing characters all wrapped up with the twists and turns of a bestseller. He is probably my favourite author (or maybe a close 2nd to Chabon or Hemmingway!) and consistantly writes great novels.

    Its nice keeping up to date with your reading on here. Keep up the good work!!

  8. Nose in a book November 19, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Lloyd Thanks, have added that Auster book to my wishlist. I’m hoping for a stupidly large pile of books this Christmas!

  9. Lloyd November 19, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Haha…Me, too. Heather claims Im “difficult to buy for” at Christmas so Im making things easy by giving her a big list of books!

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