Top Ten Novels #1: Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood

Although I love writing I simply have to be reading at least one book that I can pick up at any given moment. I try to read a range of books, all types of fiction, biographies and, in particular, history. Over the years I’ve read some brilliant novels, some of which have inspired me in my own writing, others whose stories I cannot shake years after reading them. Compiling a list of my favourite books has proven a tall order but I have come up with what are currently my Top Ten Novels. I’ve stuck with fiction for this list as I may produce a similar one for non-fiction books I have had the pleasure of reading in the near future. The wonderful thing about books is I never tire of trying to find new masterpieces. I love the ten featured here but I wouldn’t be disappointed if ten more great novels came along that bettered them, though I think it’s unlikely to happen to all of these titles.

Haruki Murakami – Norwegian Wood (1987)

Norwegian WoodFor a long time I never felt I would read a better book than The Lord of the Rings, then one day my brother mentioned a novel by a Japanese author named Haruki Murakami. He assured me it was a very good read so, always willing to try new writers and happy to embrace anything from Japan, I borrowed a copy. My brother is one of the lucky owners of Norwegian Wood in its original format i.e. a gold box containing two small books – one red and one green. When first released in the late eighties Norwegian Wood was very popular with Japanese students who were said to carry one of the two books with them, dependent on which they related to the most. Armed with my two little books I commenced reading Murakami’s masterpiece that propelled him so suddenly to fame that he fled Japan, unable to cope with his new found status, and would not return for nearly a decade.

The novel begins with Toru Watanabe arriving in Germany and no sooner has he stepped foot on German soil than he hears the music to “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles. Toru is immediately taken back to his days at university in Tokyo in the Sixties, to a time of rebellious students, alcohol, sex, wandering in the wilderness of teenage angst and reaching a life changing crossroad. Toru’s tale starts with his friendship with Kizuki and his girlfriend Naoko. Though enjoying a seemingly perfect relationship with Naoko, Kizuki commits suicide when he is only 17 leaving Toru and Naoko to console one another. Toru has always been fond of Naoko and one day they end up sleeping together. What Toru believes may be the start of a relationship is thwarted by Naoko’s sudden disappearance. When she finally contacts Toru to announce she is convalescing in a sanatorium, Toru has since been faced with a new complication in his life – his friendship and affection for the free-spirited Midori. Drawn into Midori’s world, Toru is able to look ahead to the future but the reappearance of Naoko brings back his past and he is left to choose between the two women or whether to be alone.

The first noticeable thing for me about Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s style. Like Hemingway, I found the prose simple but vivid in its imagery, giving life to the many surroundings and capturing a myriad of memorable characters with so much conviction on each page. Midori is a delightful character being outspoken, confident and unmoved by social convention. Naoko, in contrast, is depicted as extremely fragile both physically and mentally. With Midori, Toru is often dragged through the streets of Tokyo to be involved in all kinds of mischief and fun, but with Naoko the conversation is more ponderous and serious. Though Toru’s love for Naoko is without question there is sometimes the feeling that he would rather be embracing the same carefree existence as Midori. That said, once Toru has been reunited with Naoko he begins to spurn Midori, inevitably earning her disapproval.

Norwegian Wood made me nostalgic for my own days at university. The many characters Toru meets all have their own enduring qualities. Midori aside, Toru spends a lot of time with Nagasawa after Naoko’s disappearance and the duo indulge in a series of one night stands with fellow students, their disregard for women seeing them even swap partners on occasion. Toru continues these sexual conquests while longing for Naoko but even he grows weary of them and the lack of feeling involved, but he remains friends with Nagasawa. Toru also befriends Nagasawa’s long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi, who puts up with her boyfriend’s betrayals and even tries to advice Toru on his own predicament. Outside university, another notable character is Reiko, a music teacher and friend of Naoko who is also convalescing at the sanatorium after the breakdown of her marriage and music career. She becomes integral as a mediator between Toru and Naoko as they try to rebuild their relationship.

The love triangle at the centre of Norwegian Wood is both moving and fascinating. On the one hand Midori helps ease Toru’s sadness and longing for Naoko, but in becoming drawn to her he only feels guilty and that this act is a betrayal to Naoko who he still professes to love. How this love triangle resolves itself is not for me to say and with the ending to the book it is clear Murakami had a difficult time making a decision as well. With a forthcoming film adaptation of Norwegian Wood I am both excited and worried. Any adaptation needs to do a book justice and with Norwegian Wood being so personal to me I would take a mediocre film version very hard. A positive is the casting of Rinko Kikuchi (excellent in Babel) as Naoko, which I’ll take as a good sign at this stage, though the casting of Toru and Midori will be crucial to the film’s success.

The first time I read Norwegian Wood I found myself angry and resentful after turning that final page and closing the book for good. My fury was not born of any weakness in the novel but purely out of frustration that it was over. I’ve since read the book on two more occasions and its impact on me remains undiminished. When Mrs B and I were just friends I recommended the book to her and after reading it herself she had nothing but praise, even insisting it had changed her life. Murakami’s novel is beautifully written, with intoxicating prose, heartfelt and believable characters and sensuous imagery from the bustling streets of Tokyo to the serenity of the sanatorium. One day I may read a better book than Norwegian Wood but if you were to say to me now that this is as good as fiction gets then no one will be more pleased than me.

Final Top Ten:-

1) Haruki Murakami – Norwegian Wood

2) JRR Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

3) Richard Adams – Watership Down

4) Aldous Huxley – Brave New World

5) Clive Barker – The Thief of Always

6) George Orwell – 1984

7) Terry Pratchett – Night Watch

8) John Irving – The World According to Garp

9) Terry Goodkind – Wizard’s First Rule

10) Steve Toltz – A Fraction of the Whole

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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