Book review: “Norwegian Wood” & “The Strange Library” by Haruki Murakami

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Gorgeous covers

Murakami is a giant of Japanese literature, and it was Norwegian Wood that sealed his international fame. Prior to its publication (in Japan in 1987) his reputation and readership were more modest, but when he became internationally famous with this book, he fled the country and eschewed all publicity (oh for that luxury!). I had read nothing by Murakami before this although a friend told me (when I’d only just started it) that Norwegian Wood was his favourite book of all time and after reading he went out and got hold of everything else Murakami had written.

It’s a book that really defies description. To say it’s a love story (which it is) does not do justice to the complex interweaving of themes, the darkness, the painterly portrayal of intimate relationships and the forensic examination of the dilemmas of youth and coming of age.

Toru Watanabe is on a plane at the age of 37, about to land at Hamburg airport, when the song Norwegian Wood by The Beatles is played on the aircraft’s PA system. It takes him immediately back to his youth, when he was at university in 1969. His girlfriend at that time was Naoko, a fragile young woman with whom he used to walk miles around Tokyo. Naoko was, previously, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. Thus the scene is set that this novel is going to explore some challenging themes.

Naoko and Toru become lovers, but their relationship stalls when Naoko is admitted to long-term psychiatric care for severe mental health issues. Toru remains loyal to Naoko, visits her occasionally at the special hospital where she lives, some distance from Tokyo, and also strikes up a friendship with Naoko’s roommate Reiko, who, because of the very close relationship she has with Naoko, appears to know everything about Toru. A further character then enters and places Toru in something of a love triangle; Midori is a feisty, passionate fellow student to whom Toru is immediately attracted. They become friends but nothing more, mainly because of Toru’s loyalty to Naoko. Midori also has a boyfriend, although she says is not in love with him.

It is a novel in which nothing very much happens, so I don’t want to say more about the ‘plot’, and I have had some difficulty explaining to myself what is so engaging about it; I had high expectations after my friend’s endorsement. When we discussed it in my book club, we all said we found it a slow read; it is not a book you can read quickly. In a weird sort of way it forces you to read at reading out loud pace. You have to take in and savour every word, and every word has been written to be savoured. The level of detail in the observations is extraordinary. The main characters, especially Toru and Naoko, are so gentle and sensitive, that it almost has the same effect as when you hold a newborn baby – they are so fragile that all your movements become softer, your heart and breathing seem to slow down. The purpose of this, I think, is to try to take the reader deeply into the private worlds of the characters, to feel what they feel, see what they see.

There are some brash peripheral characters in the novel, such as Toru’s dorm mates, and there is a strong sense of time and place – student revolts in Japan in the late ‘60s – which serve to highlight the quietness and sensitivity of the main characters, even Midori, who comes across initially as a strong personality, but who is masking deeper insecurities.

It is a novel about coming of age, about growing up, but also about the deep darkness of depression and suicide. Insofar as it is a love story, it asks the reader what the limits of human beings’ commitments to one another are, but it will not give you a straightforward answer.

After reading Norwegian Wood I was given a copy of another of Murakami’s works, published in the UK in 2014, The Strange Library. This is a work of short fiction, a very surreal and fascinating story about a young boy who is imprisoned in the bowels of his local library after being tricked into following a strange old man in search of a reference book about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Whilst trapped inside he meets a collection of other weird and wonderful characters also trapped in a kind of time and space limbo. Like much short fiction it concludes in a way that leaves more questions than answers. The edition I read is beautifully illustrated, which added to my appreciation of it immensely, and it has left me wanting to explore more of Murakami’s work.

Norwegian Wood is a strange and powerful novel that will certainly leave its mark. It stays with you long after you finish it. Highly recommended.

If you are familiar with Murakami, which of his books would you recommend?

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‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

This might be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read and certainly one of the most unsettling reads in a while. It’s the sort of book where you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat as you observe some very disturbing behaviour.

The Vegetarian imgIt’s basically a book about sickness, and the various forms it takes; the sickness of the troubled central character, Yeong-hye, whose decision to renounce meat from her diet is the catalyst to a catastrophic sequence of events; the sickness of some of her relatives who simply cannot accept Yeong-hye’s decision or who use it to perpetrate their own base acts; and the sickness in the society which degrades and dehumanises Yeong-hye. The insidious and malevolent control meted out to Yeong-hye over a period of many years (a control that was legitimised by social and cultural norms) leads to her attempting to starve herself in a desperate attempt to assert her autonomy, and this has explosive consequences

The novel is written in three parts (originally each was published separately). The first part is narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband. Mr Cheong is a selfish, misogynistic fool who is completely indifferent to his wife. There is no trace of affection in their relationship. Any fondness that may have existed has disappeared and Mr Cheong is now bitter that Yeong-hye makes no effort to be the good wife: she embarrasses him in front of his boss, fails to wear a bra and does not keep the house tidy. Mr Cheong rapes his wife repeatedly and sees nothing wrong in ensuring his physical needs are met in this way. And yet, so desperate is Yeong-hye’s family to save face in what in their eyes is a good marriage, they turn against her when she decides to stop eating meat, seeing it as a kind of protest which must be seen to be crushed. There is a very disturbing family dinner scene.

The second part is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. At first he appears more sensitive than Mr Cheong and shows some kindness towards Yeong-hye, particularly after the events at the family dinner party. He is an artist and claims he has always been fascinated by his sister-in-law’s fragility, both physical and emotional. At first he seems to be helping her, enabling her to express herself in a new way. But, ultimately, he too will exploit and damage her.

The final part concerns the relationship between Yeong-hye and her sister, In-hye. She emerges as the strongest character in the book and through her we have a reliable witness to the events of the novel. She reflects on the period since her sister became a vegetarian and how her world, and her family’s world has turned upside down. But rather than see it as her sister’s fault (as her parents do) she understands how Yeong-hye’s mental illness has been brought about by the abuse she has experienced.

The Vegetarian img 2

This book won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and has had universal acclaim. It is a very poetic novel, beautifully translated by Deborah Smith; the motif of Yeong-hye’s dream and her desire to transform into a plant provides a powerful element of fantasy, although for me this was not always coherent. However, it is also deeply troubling. Not one for the faint-hearted!