‘Memory is a funny thing.’
Toru Watanabe, our narrator, is 37 years old when the novel opens. He is on a flight when an orchestral version of ‘Norwegian Wood’ takes him back to his life as a university student in Tokyo 18 years earlier.
Then, Toru was a quiet, serious student, devoted to Naoko. But the tragic death of Naoko’s long-term boyfriend, Toru’s best friend, overshadows and shapes their relationship. While Toru adapts to life on campus, Naoko retreats into herself and leaves Tokyo. Toru becomes involved with Midori, who is completely different from Naoko, but it is Naoko who he is waiting for.
So where does this leave Toru? He is caught between his feelings for Naoko, which he is largely unable to act on, and his physical response to Midori when she is in the mood to spend time with him. It is tough enough being a young adult without being torn between responsibility and reaction.
I found this novel unbearably sad at times. Toru spends a lot of time alone, reflecting on life and death. There is plenty of sex (and occasional intimacy) as Toru tries to understand his own emotional responses. Thirty-seven-year-old Toru is removed from the events of the past, but never from their impact. And I finished the novel, wondering whether the adult Toru can achieve peace within himself.
‘People leave strange little memories of themselves behind when they die.’