Review: Norweigan Wood by Haruki Murakami

UK book cover of Norweigan Wood by Haruki Murakami

I feel like I should be sat here in my huge black-framed hipster glasses sipping from my hipster pumpkin spice latte while I jot down my cool-ass hipster poetry in my leather notebook. That’s what hipsters do, right? I wouldn’t know, as I’m so far from hip that I… use the word ‘hip,’ apparently.

If reading Murakami makes me a hipster, then so be it. At least I’ll be a well-read one 🙂

(Don’t worry, I haven’t gone crazy. The above is for the benefit of certain people who are obviously jealous of my back-catalogue of important literature.)

Warning: strong language and discussions of sex scenes (although it’s Murakami’s fault for making it weird).

Plot summary: When he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe recalls his
first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. Immediately
he is transported back almost twenty years to his student days in Tokyo,
adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and
desire – to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marches
into his life and he has to choose between the future and the past.

I’m always apprehensive about beginning a Murakami novel, even though I usually end up really getting into it. I think I expect them to be difficult and demanding with obtuse philosophical essays, but they’re not – they’re actually incredibly accessible. I love how they’re somehow mundane yet whimsical – the story is almost something that could happen in everyday life, but not quite.

I like the normalcy in these books. You hardly ever know what the point of his books are or where the hell it’s going, but it almost doesn’t matter as the journey is so interesting. Most novels only describe the important parts of a character’s day; the events that are relevant to the progression of the plot. It takes a special kind of skill to describe every single unnecessary step taken and yet still make it interesting – Scarlett Thomas pulls it off quite well, but Haruki Murakami is the Master. In this book, the characters decide to go on a short journey… but only after buying those super-necessary and irrelevant train tickets! 🙂

There are obviously themes and suchlike in Norweigan Wood, as I doubt it would be as popular as it has become if it were left only to train-ticket-buying shenanigans. It’s a particular depressing one this time, revolving primarily around loss, death and the process of moving on. Having said that, the novel itself never really seemed to get me down – the characters feature as literative devices only, so it’s not like you get particularly attached. It’s more of a discussion piece about loneliness so I assume the distance between the reader and the characters is intentional to simulate the theme.

I’m looking for selfishness. Perfect selfishness. Like, say I tell you I
want to eat strawberry shortcake. And you stop everything you’re doing
and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get
down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortcake out to me. And I
say I don’t want it anymore and throw it out the window. That’s what I’m
looking for.”

“I’m not sure that has anything to do with love,” I said with some amazement.

“It does,” she said. “You just don’t know it. There are time in a girl’s life when things like that are incredibly important.”

“Things like throwing strawberry shortcake out the window?”

And when I do it, I want the man to apologize to me. “Now I see,
Midori. What a fool I have been! I should have known that you would lose
your desire for strawberry shortcake. I have all the intelligence and
sensitivity of a piece of donkey shit. To make it up to you, I’ll go out
and buy you something else. What would you like? Chocolate Mousse?

“So then what?”

“So then I’d give him all the love he deserves for what he’s done.”

“Sounds crazy to me.”

“Well, to me, that’s what love is…” 

I’m bored with pretending I know what I’m talking about now, so let’s talk about sex! Gross sex, in particular. I’d forgotten about the odd yet quite graphic sex that features in most of Murakami’s books. It’s just kind of awkward. I didn’t make a note of the Norweigan Wood-specific… uhh… wood, but in 1Q84 there was a particularly memorable section about how ‘he stirred my vagina with his penis like I was a cup of cocoa.’ Awesome. Sign me up for that one :s

So everything was fine – I nuzzled happily into the story, finished it and then made a rookie error. I DID NOT IMMEDIATELY CLOSE THE BOOK. Why do I not learn!? Why do I persist in reading Epilogues and Author’s Notes, even though I know they’re going to irk me? What’s wrong with me!?

‘Haruki Murakami was shocked and depressed to find his normal six-figure readership exploding into the millions…’ Oh, you can fuck right off with that one. It makes you sad that millions of people read your book? How dare you!? Do you know how many aspiring authors would kill just to have the six-figure readership and just how many of those people never even come close? You don’t get to choose that only an elite few get the privilege of reading your precious novel because the rest are clearly too mainstream to understand it!

Alright, I cave. Murakami is clearly a gigantic hipster. And an ass. And no, I won’t link to where you can purchase his book – you might buy it and therefore upset him.

Read a much more eloquent and thoughtful review of Norweigan Wood at Literature Martini.


  1. Laura says:

    SO MUCH WEIRD SEX IN MURAKAMI! I had blocked the cocoa stirring one, so nice work bringing that back to meeeee *voms*

    I love the normal stuff mixed with the weird stuff, I LOVE Midori and I read Norwegian Wood at a weird time emotionally so it makes me super sad in some ways and makes me super happy because it was my first Murakami and I looooooove him and oh I just want to read all the Murakami forever now. NICE WORK HANNA, I STILL HAVE TO READ BLOODY SHAKESPEARE.

    Or.. I"m glad you pretty much liked it! Sorry Murakami is kind of a douche, he seems less dickish in his memoir if that's helpful in any way?

    1. admin says:

      Haha, I've never been able to forget it. I liked that book but that's the ONE thing that really stuck in my head.

      Exactly. The mix of normal and weird just works so well – it's perfect.

      Yeeeeeah, I don't care about him enough to read his memoir. It's just that particular aspect really tainted his work for me, you know?

  2. Etudesque says:

    Read this one during a readalong, and whoa I haven't had to skim and cover my eyes (awkwardly reading through my fingers) over a sex scene in a long time. I've repressed most of it, but what I do remember is just weird, very weird. I am a huge fan of Murakami's portrayal of loneliness, inner dialogue, Midori's bright and funny interjections, etc. Not so much the TMI-level of candor about sex.

  3. Jimjamjenny says:

    Haha, Murakami sex scenes are always cringe inducing. They are NOT any better in the original Japanese either, so it's definitely not a translation issue (although I think that in many ways Japanese people are a lot less prudish when it comes to sex and the human body than the British). Although I'm pretty sure that the thing about the cocoa is not quite as explicit as that!

    I find it weird that Norwegian Wood is the Murakami book that everyone in Japan seems to have read, as it's quite different to a lot of his other stuff (as in, there's no bizarre bit where everyone goes into a dream world or loads of random supernatural stuff happens, it's mostly just a straightforward story).

    I think Murakami has his problems, but I don't think that he is necessarily as pretentious and stupid as he seems that he is being in those comments (I also wonder if something he said was interpreted weirdly?)… I can imagine that if you had a decent readership that suddenly exploded into a massive one and you were thrust into limelight that you didn't necessarily want, it might not be the greatest thing ever. I would hate to be really famous (especially in Japan – being famous in Japan seems AWFUL), and in Japan he really is massively famous. I have never met anybody here who doesn't know who he is, even people who don't ever read books. I imagine that the kind of stress that that level of fame brings is quite a lot to deal with. After all, judging by how strange some of his books are, I doubt that he went into writing thinking that he was going to get super famous and rich. I have never seen him actively seeking publicity on TV here, unlike some other writers (Murakami Ryu, for example, had/has (not sure) his own TV show), so I think he probably just doesn't want everyone to know him and be recognised. Maybe that's what he was getting at?

    Or maybe he is just a bit of a prick. Who knows!

    But yeah, finding out stuff about authors in general can be pretty depressing. These days I try not to, unless I have heard from reliable sources beforehand that they are genuinely good people.

  4. Ellie says:

    I read this when I was at school at thought I was SO cool. Does that make me a founding father of hipsterdom? I had such a Murakami phase and now I really don't give to shakes about him. Not that I could tell you why, his novels just frustrate me and it then frustrates me that I don't get the whole Murakami is a literary god thing. Y'know?!

    I'm glad you liked it though, even if he is a bit of a muppet 🙂

    1. admin says:

      Haha, I know what you mean perfectly. I liked this book and I enjoyed it, but only as a story, not as a philosophical viewpoint or message. I don't really understand his theoretical godliness either, but there you are.

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