‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ by Mieko Kawakami (Review)

When Pushkin Press put out several short Japanese novel(la)s early last year, I was crossing my fingers that it would be the start of a more substantial series, and it looks like my wish has been granted.  Additional titles to be released this year will take the collection up to six titles, and I’m very keen to check them all out, along with any others that may appear in future years.  That starts today with a look at a short work that came out towards the end of 2017, a long-overdue English-language debut from a young female writer with a big reputation, and a story that examines the difficulties involved in growing up, and letting go…

Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is narrated by an unnamed schoolboy who lives with his mother and his bed-ridden grandmother.  He’s a fairly normal kid, with an interest in art and a couple of close friends, but he has a secret, a crush he’s developed on a woman working at the local supermarket:

“Ms Ice Sandwich” is a name I made up, of course.  I thought of it the minute I first saw her.  Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer.
p.10 (Pushkin Press, 2017)

These eyes have mesmerised the poor boy to the extent that he’s spent much of his summer walking to the supermarket for sandwiches he doesn’t really want, just for a brief glimpse of his obsession.

Of course, not everyone sees things the way he does, and when people talk about Ms Ice Sandwich, it isn’t as favourable as you might expect.  After hearing gossip at school and seeing a disturbing confrontation at the shop, the boy stays away for a while, preferring to think of the woman from a distance.  It isn’t until a friend asks him about her that he realises that it might be best to approach his fantasy woman before it’s too late.

While it isn’t marketed as such, Ms Ice Sandwich is very much a YA book, one that looks at a few months in the life of a boy growing up and explores how he comes to terms with life’s biggest obstacles, love and death.  Having lost his father at a young age, he is bracing himself for the inevitable eventual death of his grandmother and wondering what it actually means:

I think maybe Grandma’s going to die soon, and then she won’t be here any more.  Sometimes when I find myself starting to think that way, I immediately try to stop it, but now I feel the thought slowly creeping out again.  I picture a dent in the pillow where her head used to be and I squeeze my eyes tight for a moment.  Grandma is sleeping.  Peacefully.  Her mouth is slightly open, she’s making little breathing noises.  Grandma who’s asleep and Grandma who’s going to die.  Are these the same Grandma? (p.49)

His grandmother’s room is his happy place, and even though she is unable to leave her bed (and is usually) asleep, he spends much of his free time in her company.

What he often does there is work on drawings of Ms Ice Sandwich, sketching her face from memory with a particular focus on her big blue eyes, and that’s pretty much how the reader sees her.  With only the narrator’s second-hand description to guide us, the shop assistant is a two-dimensional figure, one that only exists in the boy’s words (and on paper).  However, as the story progresses, we learn more about her (as does the boy), and she becomes more of a real person the less perfect she appears.

In truth, though, Ms Ice Sandwich isn’t even the main female character in the novel, a role taken by the boy’s friend Tutti (don’t ask…).  She also lost a parent at a young age, and the two begin to develop a friendship, with the boy coming over to watch movies at her house.  Amusingly, he is oblivious to the fact that his blind obsession with the woman who sells him sandwiches is stopping him from getting to know Tutti better, and for every couple of steps forward, there’s a swift backwards shuffle owing to an ill-timed comment.  Not only does he not see that she likes him, he somehow fails to realise that he likes her, a slightly frustrating state of affairs for the reader…

Ms Ice Sandwich is short and touching without being overly sentimental, and this is largely due to the endearing main character.  Kawakami and Kawai cleverly capture his young voice, with its simple language and long, rambling sentences going off at tangents:

…I’ve been thinking about all kinds of stuff lately, about the money, and about Grandma… so seeing as tonight I’m not tired at all yet, I think I’ll go to bed and stare up at the ceiling and think about it all, and then I start thinking, What was it exactly that was what way?, and somehow the swirls in the grain of the wood start to expand and contract and I begin to feel sleepy, and then my chest and my head fill up with some kind of fog and I can’t seem to work this or that or anything out in my mind. (p.16)

It’s a long time since I was that age, but I can remember the feeling of having to cope with new situations and not really knowing where to begin.  In truth, little has changed…

Overall, the book is probably a little short and simple for me to really love it, but there’s plenty here to enjoy, and certainly enough for me to want to try more of Kawakami’s work in English (there are phantom links around to a translation of her book Breasts and Eggs, but I don’t think it actually exists in a commercial version).  Ms Ice Sandwich is one to recommend if you enjoy coming-of-age stories, especially those where young people must learn to cope with things coming to an end and new passages of life beginning.  And if you like sandwiches, too – well, then this is definitely your lucky day 😉

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