University is difficult. Not just the academics, but the social side more than anything else. We are forced to sink-or-swim in a setting where we initially know no one, and rarely have old friendship groups to rely on. And yet at the same time, it’s a blank slate – we are encouraged, if not outright told, that this is our best opportunity to ‘be ourselves’, whatever that means.
Some get through that just fine, and others are left feeling lost and aimless. Your life isn’t going as smoothly as advertised, and you wonder if you’re a little bit broken because of it. Norwegian Wood is for those people; not because it’s some feel-good, Chicken Soup for the Soul pap; but because it asserts that although your life might be driving you a bit crazy – everyone else is also malfunctioning.
The story follows Toru Watanabe in his years at university. His pursuit for higher education is in a bid to leave behind painful memories of his best (and only) friend Kizuki’s suicide. While he manages to extricate himself from complete dispair, Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko is less lucky. The death brings them both together and a connection is felt; but Naoko is still unstable, and admits herself into a sanatorium, deep in the woods of the countryside.
Trying to move on, Toru encounters Midori in one of his classes. She, like him, feels like an outsider; but her outgoing and fickle personality contrasts starkly to the quetly beautiful Naoko. Moving back and forth between university life and visits to the otherwordly calm of the sanatoruim, Toru acts as something of a catalyst in the lives of both Midori and Naoko, while everyone else impresses on him how he should look at life.
While I could just chalk it up to careful writing and confirmation bias, it’s easy to find the points where one’s university life reflects that of Toru’s. The burning desire to get away from the grind of uni; the attempts to try and innundate yourself in the culture to try and fit in (even when that proves unsatisfying); the quest to find a balance between friendship and something more intimate. The aspects of Japanese culture and the 1960s setting distance things from modern Western affairs somewhat, but it’s in no way an obstruction.
While Naoko is the only character who is somewhat defined by her illness and insecurities, there isn’t a single named character who has the luxury of being comfortable with themselves; though they all handle it differently. None of these outlooks are inherently wrong (though some are morally dubious), and actually call for some honest thinking about. Is isolating yourself from the rest of the functioning world to repair oneself the best idea? Is a culture of one-night-stands actually so fulfilling? Are close friends appropriate emotional crutches?
While Norwegian Wood has a film adaptation, at time of writing I’ve not seen it. I’ve grown to be wary of novel adaptations, but if it retains the same thought-provoking yet subtle commentary of university life and the flaws of human nature, then it’ll be on the right track.