When Toru Watanabe hears the song Norwegian Wood he is transported 20 years back in time. Memories come flooding back and he remembers all the tragedies of his late teens and early twenties.
When Watanabe was 17 his best friends were Kizuki and his girlfriend Noaka. When Kizuki, for reasons that are unclear to his friends, commmits suicide Watanabe has to come to terms with death and loss for the first time.
Shortly afterwards Watanabe starts studying in Tokyo where he for a short while reconnects with Noaka. He gets close to her but Noaka soon finds herself struggling with mental problems and moving away to a institution where she hopes to get better.
Alone in Tokyo, Watanabe finds himself caught up in the excitement of the late 1960's, early 1970's. Free love, student unrest and uneasy friendships keep him yearning for his past and Noaka, who doesn't appear to be getting any better.
When he meets the exciting and inconventional Midori, she forces him to make a choice between the memories of the past and the possibilies of the future. But before he can make such a choice, Watanabe has to come to terms with all the loss he has encountered in his life and give himself permission to go on.
This was a fascinating read, but not a light one. It deals with death on several levels; the death of friends, the death of parents, and suicide. It is in many ways a coming of age story, with Watanabe having to learn to deal with the losses he suffers without giving in to the despair and feelings of guilt he feels.
Almost to balance all the deaths the book also deals liberally with sex. The setting of the story puts us firmly in the age of free love and not only is there lots of that in the story, it also gets described in detail through the very frank characters in the story.
At some level I can't help feeling that I probably missed some level of this story due to cultural differences and my ignorance of all things Japanese. However, on another level this was just a beautiful story about a boy growing up reluctantly while having to deal with devastating loss after devasting loss and as such it was a compelling read.
I'm delighted to have discovered Murakami's books and look forward to reading something else by him in the near future.