Perfect for reading on Coming of Age day in Japan – this 1987 novel by Haruki Murakami is a story of Toru Watanabe looking back as a college student living in Tokyo.
This is a nostalgic journey about loss and sexuality as Toru thinks back to how he developed relationships with two very different women – Naoko who is emotionally troubled and Midori who is very outgoing.
The setting and timing of the novel are pertinent to the story since 1960s Japan was a time when students were protesting against the government and the changes within society.
The title comes from the fact that Toru starts to reminisce following a long airplane flight and hearing the Beatles track of the same name. He starts t think if Naoko and their walks together in the snowy landscapes near the mental institution where she is undergoing therapy.
When Naoko commits suicide, Toru finds that a part of him is still wandering in that snow. The winter snow becomes a metaphor for so much in the story – of a culture that hides death and denies its very existence – in care homes and institutions. Death and its partners loss and grief, is omnipresent throughout the novel.
However death is also something that we cannot escape and Toru fails to realise this and the impact of loss on his life as he thinks back to the past. Death and particularly suicide have made him the person he is today –
Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that eighteen years later I would recall it in such detail. I didn’t give a damn about the scenery that day. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about the beautiful girl walking next to me. I was thinking about the two of us together, and then about myself again. It was the age, that time of life when every sight, every feeling, every thought came back, like a boomerang, to me. And worse, I was in love. Love with complications. The scenery was the last thing on my mind.
Norwegian Wood was hugely popular with Japanese youth and made Murakami something of a superstar in his native country. There was a film of the book released in 2010.
This is a moving story about love and friendship and first relationships. it describes perfectly the nature of the characters. The Japanese culture permeates the atmosphere of the whole novel; the style, mindset, love, and friendship.
How do you live in the present if you continue to live in the past?
A tale of depressing and sadness, it is extremely sad and upsetting in many place and is certainly not an easy read. But if the story is about about a teenager at a crossroads in his life, then it can also be classed as a take of transition in every sense of the word.
Quite apt for Japan’s Coming of Age Day today.