Monday, November 28, 2016

Norwegian Wood: a book club review

Haruki Murakami is one of those author names of mythic proportions that you hear mentioned as the inspiration for some of the top writers of the day, yet whose novels you may not know. Admittedly, I didn't. When the Newlywed announced Norwegian Wood as her selection for book club this month, I was excited to finally have a nudge to read the great Murakami. I was not disappointed.

Norwegian Wood is not a simple read. As is so often true of novels I sink fully into, it was more character than plot driven, and more poetic than prosaic. It lingers in the dark corners of life - mental illness, suicide, cancer, loss. And yet I felt comforted by it. I obviously can't read the original and compare it to the translation, but I can't imagine a more beautifully written story. It all started with this -

"All I knew about the well was its frightening depth. It was deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world's darknesses had been boiled down to their ultimate density."

I read that sentence and fell in love with this book. There's nothing like a well turned metaphor to capture my heart and mind: 
  • “I really like you, Midori. A lot.”
    “How much is a lot?”
    “Like a spring bear,” I said.
    “A spring bear?” Midori looked up again. “What’s that all about? A spring bear.”
    “You’re walking through a field all by yourself one day in spring, and this sweet little bear cub with velvet fur and shiny little eyes comes walking along. And he says to you, “Hi, there, little lady. Want to tumble with me?’ So you and the bear cub spend the whole day in each other’s arms, tumbling down this clover-covered hill. Nice, huh?”
  • "How much do you love me?' Midori asked.
    'Enough to melt all the tigers in the world to butter,' I said.” 
But there's more to Murakami. An insight into humanity. An understanding of life and love and death that is simultaneously scary and sad and encouraging and enlightening: 
  • "What happens when people open their hearts?"
    Cigarette dangling from her lips, Reiko clasped her hands together on the table. She was enjoying this.
    "They get better," she said.
  • Don't feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that
  • “Letters are just pieces of paper," I said. "Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
  • She's letting out her feelings. The scary thing is not being able to do that. When your feelings build up and harden and die inside, then you're in big trouble.”
  • "Person A understands Person B because the time is right for that to happen, not because Person B wants to be understood by Person A."
    "So is it a mistake for me to feel that I want to be understood by someone - by you, for example?"
    "No, it's not a mistake," answered Nagasawa. "Most people would call that love ..."
And then there's the sheer poetry:
  • “Colors shone with exceptional clarity in the rain. The ground was a deep black, the pine branches a brilliant green, the people wrapped in yellow looking like special spirits that were allowed to wander over the earth on rainy mornings only.” 
  • “let the wind change direction a little bit, and their cries turned to whispers.”
  • “Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to start - the way a map that shows to much can sometimes be useless. Now, though I realize that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts.” 
  • “The world was big and full of weird things and strange people.”
  • In the pale evening gloom, when the soft fragrance of magnolias hung in the air, my heart would swell without warning, and tremble, and lurch with a stab of pain.
No list of quotations though, however long, can sing you the music of this novel. It's like hearing a beautiful chord from a song and thinking you know the melody. 

Norwegian Wood resonates, through the softening haze of remembrance, with the culture of the time and with anachronistic memories from earlier times - The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye and other classic American novels. The Doors and The Beatles (obviously) and music and art great and minor. 

When a book is beautiful and full of poetry it lends itself easily to gentle conversation and pure, simple, satisfying food. The Newlywed provided both in her first time hosting book club. The most sumptuous ramen buffet of unctuous broth, fresh vegetables, and perfectly poached eggs. Warmly spiced pots au chocolat. A smooth, friendly Malbec.

Maybe it's only because this is the first book in several months that I've completed before book club. Maybe it was the intimacy of our small gathering or that I needed to be among people who love and appreciate me. Whatever melange created this evening, it was exactly what a book club evening should be. 

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