This is my review of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
It may help to be 19 or/and Japanese to appreciate this book fully.
At first, I was struck by the power of the uncluttered prose, well-preserved in the excellent translation by Jay Rubin. I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the Japanese landscape, which I have never seen, and of life at Tokyo University in the late '60s, which tallied in many respects with my memories of studying in the UK at the same time – the half-baked demonstrations, extreme left-wing student leavers who became bourgeois overnight on graduating, and the young people drifting in and out of relationships on the edge of a life which they were unsure how to live. I was surprised how westernised Japan seemed as regards culture, yet this was clearly a superficial layer over deeper traditions and attitudes.
By the middle of "Norwegian Wood" I became bored, as the narrator Watanabe provided a sounding board for a succession of mixed up women, with their self-absorbed and often cringe-making sexual revelations. Although I liked Watanbe, as a thoughtful and essentially level-headed person with a wry sense of humour, the book seemed a little misogynistic to me in that the women were all portrayed as in some ways weaker, and in need of his affection and support.
Once Watanbe had met Midori, I thought I knew how the book would end, but there seemed insufficient development, and a lack of structure and plot, to get there. The focus on suicide was oppressive, although it may be realistic for Japan where I believe young people are very pressurised to study at school, plus there have been recent examples of a "suicide cult" in Britain. The tragedy of a young person's life being blighted by the death of a close friend or lover is tragic, but I am not sure that Murakimi explored this as fully and subtly as he might have done. It all got diluted with appearing "hip and sexy" to paraphrase reviews on the back cover.
Despite my reservations, I shall probably try another of Marukami's books, since I admire his style of writing.