Hello blogsphere. Again I find that my blogging is flagging a fair way behind my reading. However, some weeks back I read my first Japanese novel: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

The novel begins with a 37-year-old man named Watanabe in an aeroplane, who finds his mind suddenly taken back – by a Beatles’ song – to events that took place many years previously. The remainder of the novel is his nostalgic account of the events of his youth, 20 years earlier, in late-60s Tokyo.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is a tale of love and of loss and of youth and of discovery. While there is happiness and humour in parts, it is also a fairly intense read, containing pretty hefty dollops of loneliness, relationships that are intense by anyone’s standards, characters struggling with mental health issues, and even suicide. The book was hugely popular in Japan upon its release, and I certainly enjoyed it, but it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

I said that this was a fairly intense narrative, and part of the intensity comes from the fact that there are actually very few characters. In fact, the majority of the book revolves around Watanabe and his complex relationships with two very different women.

First we meet Naoko, who was the girlfriend of his best friend growing up. Naoko is quiet and beautiful and lyrical but is a troubled soul, who can never seem to escape her past. Later on in the novel Watanabe meets Midori, a loud, witty, self-confident young lady, who is so very different from Naoko. Midori is a party girl, who says what she thinks, and enjoys shocking others. However, we discover that her confident exterior is also hiding an inner vulnerability.

Although this is a novel written by a Japanese author, set in Japan, and featuring an entirely Japanese cast, it actually feels much more like a Western novel. It is set in the late 1960s, and there are plenty of references to Western popular culture, from the Beatles’ music alluded to in the title, to the jazz of Bill Evans and the jazz age of F. Scott Fitzgerald, to the writings of Thomas Mann and others. There are also student uprisings and revolution is in the air.

So, as a coming-of-age tale, it does call to mind some Western novels such as The Catcher in the Rye, although the misadventure is more melancholy here, and the characters’ lives sadder. Yet perhaps my choice of words here glosses over the complexity of the emotion displayed in the novel. Within these pages, Murakami convincingly depicts a whole host of emotions, from the sadness of seeing a friend facing difficult times, to the regret of missed opportunities, and from the nostalgia for a time of life now forever gone, to the loneliness of human existence.

When your feelings build up and harden and die inside, then you’re in big trouble.

But all is certainly not bleak. The novel is also awash with sex, or at least with sexual desire and with the characters’ forays into intimacy. There is also a fair bit of humour.

And the writing? Very good actually. Despite most of the narrative taking place between Toru Watanabe and just one of the other characters, it always remains utterly absorbing. I also found the ambiguous ending to be perfectly fitting. This is a vivid and memorable read.

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