Death is not the opposite of life but a part of it. This is what Toru Watanabe, the protagonist of the novel, learns from the suicide of his best friend Kizuki at the age of seventeen. Toru and Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko, joined by this incommunicable sadness, struggle in their different ways to live with the knowledge of death. The novel is a tender depiction of this struggle, its momentary successes, its relapses, its endurance. Naoko finally puts herself in a progressive mental health farm, Ami Hostel, in the hope of getting better. On a long bus ride to visit her, Toru passes through interminable cedar woods, broken only by small rural villages. The landscape of that bus ride becomes, very quietly, a metaphor for living with death.
The supporting cast is vividly drawn. Reiko, Naoko's older roommate at the farm, is a wise, loving guitar-playing, Malboro-smoking presence. Nagasawa, who lives in the same student dorm as Toru, treats life as a test of will, whether he is out looking for girls or learning Spanish from TV to embark on a high-flying career in the Foreign Ministry. Midori is the filth-talking student who finally brings Toru back to the side of life. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel happens when Toru accompanies Midori to visit her dying father in hospital. Looking at Toru eating hungrily a cucumber wrapped in nori and dipped in soya sauce, the father asks for some too. The crunchy freshness of cucumber is the taste of life. It is the taste for life.