Toru and Naoko's college romance might have been perfectly simple and predictable. They might have been confronted with the ordinary issues of becoming young adults in a large foreign city. They might have helped each other deal with the rites of passage into adulthood despite the unusual circumstances of being a student in 1968. They even might have faced up to these pressures and weathered through together.
This might have been the case, were it not for the suicide of Kizuki, Toru's best friend and Naoko's lover, a few years before. The reality is much more bleak than what might have been. The repercussions of Kizuki's death continue to spiral out and multiply, affecting both of them deeply, marking their university days with difficult questions about mortality, youth, and love.
Once close high school friends in a small town, Toru and Naoko stumble into each other on a crowded Tokyo train and quickly revive their friendship. They share a certain intimacy that neither has managed to recreate with any one of their new classmates or dorm mates who know nothing about the tragedy of their past. The renewal of their friendship, however, does not help them to move forward. While together trying to overcome the sadness of their adolescence, Toru and Naoko find their grasp on the present-day spinning out of control. Toru, the narrator, recounts how, on Naoko's birthday he felt "There was something strange about Naoko's becoming twenty. I felt as if the only thing that made sense, whether for Naoko or for me, was to keep going back and forth between eighteen and nineteen. After eighteen would come nineteen, and after nineteen, eighteen. Of course. But she turned twenty. And in the fall, I would do the same. Only the dead stay seventeen forever."
Despite his belief that they should remain rooted in the past, Toru falls in love with his dead best friend's beautiful and unpredictable girlfriend, waiting patiently for her to accept him as a lover in his own right. Naoko, in turn, is unable to love him; she has only a tenuous grasp on the present and values Toru most as a connection to the past. Only years later does Toru realize what Naoko had understood so much earlier, that they had no future together. He recounts how, "The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko herself knew, of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is precisely why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed."
NORWEGIAN WOOD is a simple story, simply told, with an emotion and quiet retrospection characteristic of Murakami's trademark style, especially in works like SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN. First published in Japan in 1987, it is this novel that propelled him into the forefront of the literary scene and made him Japan's biggest-selling novelist. His characters are unpredictable and quirky as they share poignant insights into growing up in the late '60s, losing loved ones and accepting undeserved tragedies of youth.
Reviewed by Alison Kim on January 22, 2011