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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Norwegian Wood

by
Murakami Haruki


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Norwegian Wood



Title: Norwegian Wood
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987
Length: 494 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Norwegian Wood - US
Norwegian Wood - UK
Norwegian Wood - Canada
Norwegian Wood - India
La Ballade de l'impossible - France
Naokos Lächeln - Deutschland
Norwegian Wood - Italia
Tokio blues - España
  • Japanese title: ノルウェイの森
  • Norwegian Wood was previously translated into English (by Alfred Birnbaum, 1989) in an edition published by Kodansha and intended solely for sale in Japan. This review refers to the new edition, published in 2000, the authorized English translation by Jay Rubin.
  • UK-publisher Harvill originally published this book in two small Japanese-style paperbacks, one with a red and one with a green cover. (The Japanese original was presented the same way.) The two volumes come in a box which itself is the size of your average hardcover -- very nice packaging -- but, unfortunately, apparently now out of print. The current UK edition is as boring as the US one.
  • US-publisher Vintage has published this book in a bland, boring trade-paperback edition.
  • Norwegian Wood was made into a film in 2010, directed by Tran Anh Hung

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Our Assessment:

A- : nice, well-told autobiographically tinged story of a young Japanese student around 1970

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age A 4/9/2000 Nicholas Jose
Chicago Tribune A 20/8/2000 Justin Coffin
Daily Telegraph B- 2/6/2000 Nicola McAllister
FAZ . 20/3/2001 Rose-Maria Grop
The Guardian A 27/5/2000 Steven Poole
The Independent . . 9/6/2001
The LA Times A+ 3/9/2000 Jonathan Levi
Melody Maker . 7/6/2000 Jay Brooks
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 14/7/2001 Andrea Köhler
The New Yorker . 11/12/2000 .
The NY Times Book Rev. A 24/9/2000 Janice P. Nimura
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Fall/1993 Brooke Horvath
Salon A 13/9/2000 Mary E. Williams
TLS . 2/6/2000 Paul Quinn
Die Welt . 3/3/2001 Wieland Freund
Die Zeit A (13/2001) Ulrich Greiner

Please note that Brooke Horvath's review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction refers to an earlier translation (by Alfred Birnbaum), and not the Jay Rubin translation under review here.


  Review Consensus:

  Almost (but not quite) all are very enthusiastic.

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is superbly crafted and full of wonderful things (.....) The narrator is reading The Magic Mountain and his favorite novel is The Great Gatsby. In Norwegian Wood Murakami has updated those two classics into the best sort of pop song: romantic, sad, deceptively simple, and impossible to forget." - Nicholas Jose, The Age

  • "(T)he big surprise in reading Norwegian Wood is the sense that one has stumbled upon more than a mere literary artifact or an overture to a career. It is an early work that not only points to but manifests the author's genius." - Justin Coffin, Chicago Tribune

  • "There are certain authors, such as John Irving and Stephen King, whose narrative voices are so powerful that they might write about the temperature and keep the reader transfixed; however cheap the tune, the sound remains superb. Murakami shares this gift, but uses it to poor effect here: the story is far weaker than its cast. (...) (L)ike beautifully carved puppets, they have nowhere to go and very little to do." - Nicola McAllister, Daily Telegraph

  • "Es handelt sich bei Naokos Lächeln (...) um eine Art gescheiterten Entwicklungsroman, in dem das Verhältnis zu den Frauen eine entscheidende Rolle spielt. (...) Murakamis streckenweise gelungene Prosa, die Natur und Urbanität romantisierend der Stimmung des Helden unterwirft, wird auch nicht plausibler, wenn man den zur Leitmetapher erhobenen Popsong betrachtet." - Rose-Maria Grop, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Such is the exquisite, gossamer construction of Murakami's writing that everything he chooses to describe trembles with symbolic possibility: a shirt on a washing-line, a string of paper cut-outs, a butterfly hairslide. (...) For all its metaphysical gloom, however, Norwegian Wood also flutters with sympathetic comedy." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Though this book is undeniably hip, full of student uprisings, free love, booze and 1960s pop, it's also genuinely emotionally engaging, and describes a the highs of adolescence as well as the lows." - The Independent

  • "Within this simple, sad love story -- a story that deserves to garner Murakami as large a readership as he has in Japan -- lives a fascinating cultural portrait of the Summer of Love, Japan-style." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "This elegiac meditation on the impossibility (and terror) of love is chilling, but Murakami's true achievement lies in the humor and vision he brings to even the most despairing moments of his story." - The New Yorker

  • "(A) masterly novel of late-60's love. (...) Though it may feel uncharacteristically straightforward to his American following, Norwegian Wood bears the unmistakable marks of Murakami's hand." - Janice P. Nimura, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Murakami's prose is surprisingly gentle (...) and captures beautifully both Watanabe's buffeted anomie and late-sixties Tokyo, a milder if still recognisably similar version of American sixties. Indeed, I would say that the novel is no more or less "western" than Sheep Chase or Hard-Boiled Wonderland. What makes it seem so different is that beyond the slightly otherworldly sanatorium, Norwegian Wood is exclusively a work of realism. As such, is a less startling novel than the earlier two, a quieter novel, but no less rewarding." - Brooke Horvath, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Murakami's tale is a melancholy memory of what was and what could have been, a deft combination of adult wisdom and youthful heart." - Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon

  • "Quietly compulsive and finally moving, Murakami's experiment in realism is largely successful, managing to repress his more exuberant impulses as effectively as his characters repress the historical forces around them; but along with the compacted and charged quality this gives the novel there is a loss of sweep and risk" - Paul Quinn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Der Unterschied zu einem bloß trivialen Liebesroman besteht ganz einfach im Weglassen. Murakami schildert selten das Äußere seiner Personen." - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The British edition of Norwegian Wood is a neatly presented novel. Divided exactly in two (separated right in the middle of a chapter, in fact) it comes in two handy, almost truly pocket-sized volumes of exactly 247 pages each, neatly contained in an attractive box the size of a slim hardback. The cover of the first volume is an almost alarmingly bright red, the second a subdued forest green. The Japanese edition was apparently presented the same way. It seems appropriate, highlighting the contrasts in the text as the narrative moves forward. (Needless to say, the American edition is a bland, unwieldy single-volume trade paperback -- we recommend that, if at all possible, you purchase the British edition (you can get it here))
       Norwegian Wood is a fairly early work by Murakami, first published in Japan in 1987. It was also his most resounding success there, a phenomenal bestseller. It was translated into English, by Alfred Birnbaum, but that edition was basically only made available in Japan itself. Now, finally, the book appears in an authorized translation by Jay Rubin.
       The novel is not as wildly imagined as much of Murakami's work that Western audiences are familiar with. It is a fairly straightforward Bildungsroman, closest in feel to Murakami's recent South of the Border, West of the Sun (see our review).
       The Beatles song from which the book takes its title echoes throughout the novel, the melancholy tune and sentiment imbuing the work. The novel begins with a brief introductory chapter in which the 37 year old narrator, Toru Watanabe, once again hears the song, a "sweet orchestral cover version" this time. It reminds him of his life almost twenty years earlier, and the rest of the book retells the events of those times.
       The murky ambiguity and confusion of The Beatles song is similar to that in the novel. It is a love story, or several love stories, as baffling as love often is. The Beatles sang: "I once had a girl / or should I say / she once had me". Toru is similarly unclear as to how he should consider his relationships.
       There are two women involved. One is Naoko. In high school she was Toru's best (and only) friend's girlfriend, and the three of them got along very well. Then the friend, Kizuki, only 17 at the time, committed suicide; Toru and Naoko would not see one another for almost a year after the funeral.
       Toru wanted to escape Kobe, where they had all grown up together, and he opted to go to a private university in Tokyo. Naoko also came to Tokyo for college, and it is there they run into one another again. They see each other on occasion, and make love once -- after which Naoko leaves Tokyo. Emotionally unstable she returns to her family, and then goes to live in a sort of sanatorium.
       The second woman Toru gets involved with is Midori (which means "green"), whom he meets after Naoko has left. She is in the same History of Drama class as him. Both Midori and Naoko are not entirely approachable. They like, or even love Toru, but they are wary of having him close or revealing too much about themselves. Midori's father, who she first says is off in Uruguay, is actually very sick, and Midori and her sister spend much of their time taking care of him. Toru accepts things as they come, always helpful but trying not too intrude too much. He is drawn to Midori but feels an obligation towards Naoko.
       There are few other significant people in his life. His parents are hardly a presence at all. He has a fastidious roommate, nicknamed the Storm Trooper, who simply disappears from his life. He makes one good friend, the only person he meets who has read his favourite book at the time, The Great Gatsby (replacing his previous favourite -- John Updike's The Centaur !). Nagasawa is two years older than him, a law student at Todai (Tokyo University) with a promising career ahead of him. A great success with the women, he occasionally takes Toru with him when he goes to bars or the like, looking for a one-night stand. Toru enjoys these outings, though they are also unfulfilling for him.
       Nagasawa also has a steady girlfriend, the too-understanding Hatsumi, who sticks by him despite his philandering and his cold philosophy. It is also an ill-fated relationship.
       After several months in her sanatorium Naoko asks Toru to come visit, which he does. It is a striking, secluded place, with an odd assortment of characters. Naoko's roommate, the older Reiko -- a music teacher with her own sad tale of a relationship that could not be sustained (she had a husband and child, but she left them) -- acts as intermediary, friend, and chaperone. Needless to say, there is some guitar playing -- including the haunting "Norwegian Wood", and the time Toru spends there all has the feel of that particular song.
       Nothing becomes settled for Toru, drawn closer to both Naoko and Midori. Crises come, including when Midori's father dies. Midori also realizes that Toru is not ready to have a true relationship with her. She explains to him:

You were so nice to me when I was having my problems, but now that you're having yours, it seems there's not a thing I can do for you. You're all locked up in that little world of yours, and when I try knocking on the door, you just sort of look up for a second and go right back inside.
       There is, ultimately, another suicide (a somewhat too popular solution in Japan), and Toru finally figures things out in a quite satisfactory way.

       The relatively simple story is told in a deceptively simple and straightforward manner. There is a lot of care and art behind what Murakami has done. The novel is affecting and clever. It is touching without getting too caught up in sentiment. Murakami even manages to use the Beatles song of the title without getting too unbearably sappy.
       Tokyo, Japan in general, and the semi-turbulent times (the late 60s and early 70s) remain firmly in the background, but they are well-evoked and Murakami gives a good picture of them in using them for his setting.
       The portrayal of sex in the book is relatively unusual. There is quite a lot of it, though most involves manual gratification of one sort or another. Actual consummation tends to be a unique experience, either a one-night stand or a once in a lifetime experience -- perhaps a bit too much emphasis to place on the act.
       The book is more obviously Japanese than most of Murakami's work. From the surfeit of suicides (beside the significant ones a couple of peripheral figures and relatives are also suicides) to Japanese customs and expectations some of the book will strike Western readers as odd. Most of the book, however, comes across very well in this universal story of love, loss, and finding one's place in the world.
       Love, ultimately, is marvelous, even if it is unfathomable. "Isn't it good / Norwegian wood". Indeed.
       Well worth reading. And bonus points for the nice packaging -- to UK publisher Harvill. (Minus points to boring American publisher Vintage for not following suit and instead presenting it in the usual (unattractive and unwieldy) trade paperback format.)

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Links:

Norwegian Wood: Reviews: Norwegian Wood - the movie: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • David Mitchell's Murakamiesque Ghostwritten
  • See Index of Japanese literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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