Norwegian Wood was my 4th Murakami novel. Prior to NW I had read (in order):
Hard-Boiled Wonderland & The End of The World, Kafka On The Shore, After Dark.
I really liked Hard-Boiled and Kafka. I thought After Dark was very poor compared to the other 2 books I had read due to it being too mundane and based around this 'twilight hours' theme that I wasn't really feeling. If it was my first HM book, I probably wouldn't have finished it. Got it from the library anyway. I thought that perhaps a lot of its quality was lost due to bad translation by Jay Rubin, who also translated NW. However, JR did a fantastic job with Norwegian Wood. The copy I have has a note from him saying that this was the 2nd translation of the novel, and the one HM approved of.
Norwegian Wood is Murakami's 'general literature' type novel, which was quite a task for him to write, he claims. This means that unlike his other novels, it doesn't contain any surrealist/post-modern elements (cats talking to humans). It's a coming-of-age novel; a Japanese Catcher In The Rye.
The male protagonist doesn't really differ from the one in Kafka. They always seem to be based on the author himself, or this male character he uses through his work. That's not a bad thing. I like the pop culture references. HM seems to love name dropping his favourite jazz musicians, books, and food in every novel. After Dark is actually a jazz album. I guess it's an alright album, too. The female characters in NW are interesting - the male lead shags them all in the end.
HM does have the ability to look at relationships and these kind of themes in his work. Halfway through the book he seemed to be concentrating more on lesbianism. It reminded me of David Lynch (I just watched Inland Empire), in which the story is obviously going somewhere but the author felt compelled to have lesbians involved for no apparent reason. As to not sound discriminatory, HM does seem to drop sexuality into all his works that I've read. Turns out Sputnik Sweetheart is a whole book based on it.
The characters in the book were engrossing. I was surprised that a book of this nature held my interest. It doesn't have overly profound themes and sophisticated prose--think authors like Kazuo Ishiguro—but manages to still convey the same powerful messages in an accessible format.
What I love about HM's books is how they still manage to be taken serious, yet hauntingly beautiful, even with talking cats. NW contains loveable characters, laugh-out-loud moments, grief, and tells us about a fairly sad story of a guy growing up and shagging girls in his 1960's Tokyo university days. Oh, and one of the characters plays Beatles tunes on her guitar and is always smoking.