Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood.

NY: Random House, 2000.

It’s 1989 and thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe has just flown into Hamburg when he hears the Beatles song of the title coming over the 747’s sound system. And he’s instantly back in Tokyo in 1969, a college freshman facing his twentieth birthday. Toru is something of an intellectual — he read Balzac and Mann and Updike in high school, though his favorite author seems to be Scott Fitzgerald — but he thinks of himself as something of a slacker.

He makes mediocre grades in a second-rate college because, even though he’s bright and reflective, he simply can’t be bothered. He’s just marking time until adulthood, though he has no particular career plans, either. The defining moment of his life so far came when he was seventeen and his best friend, Kizuki, committed suicide for unexplained reasons. That’s largely why he had to get away from Kobe and come to the big city.

Kizuki left behind Naoko, the extraordinarily beautiful girl who loved him, and whom Toru bumps into a year later. Their mutual feeling of loss draws them together and during their long, slightly odd walks around Tokyo, he finds himself falling in love with her. But Naoko is a very fragile personality and after awhile she’s put herself in a sanitarium up north. Toru writes her long letters every week, trying every way he can think of to help her.

Meanwhile, he also meets Midori, a very different sort of girl — lively, sometimes startling crude, naturally sexy, and an amazing cook. They start out simply as mutually supportive friends, but you know from the beginning it’s going to grow into more than that.

The plot is thoughtful and the characters sensitively drawn, and the author deals with his themes — death, loss, isolation — in a way that draws you thoroughly into the narrative. But for me, the most enjoyable part of the book is simply Maurakami’s lyrical and inventive use of the language. (Jay Rubin, the translator, does a marvelous job of bringing it all through into English.) This is how Toru describes the middle-aged Reiko at the sanitarium: “Her face had lots of wrinkles. These were the first thing to catch your eye, but they didn’t make her look old. Instead, they emphasized a certain youthfulness in her than transcended age. The wrinkles belonged where they were, as if they had been part of her face since birth. When she smiled, the wrinkles smiled with her; when she frowned, the wrinkles frowned, too.” That’s not just a description, it’s a watercolor.

Later, Reiko comments on her skills as a teacher, that “I’m much better at bringing out the best in others than in myself. That’s just the kind of person I am. I’m the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox. But that’s fine with me. Better to be a first-class matchbox than a second-class match.” And a row of small, brightly painted cottages, all with symmetrical, oversize windows are “what you might get if Walt Disney did an animated version of a Munch painting.”

Murakami isn’t always easy to read — not for me, anyway — but this is a book I expect I’ll be revisiting in a couple years.

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