Earlier this week, I posted on the first part of Mieko Kawakami’s latest release in English, Breasts and Eggs (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, review copy courtesy of Picador Australia), and today (as promised) I’m taking a look at the second half of the novel (or, if you prefer, the sequel). We’re back in Tokyo, and once again we’re confronting a very feminine dilemma, but this time the one facing an existential crisis isn’t Makiko, or even Midoriko, but Natsuko herself…
Book Two takes place in 2016, picking up the story eight years after the eventful few days described in the first part. Natsuko is now a successful author, having released a collection of stories that has sold over 60,000 copies, and is working on her debut novel. Back in Osaka, Makiko is the same as ever, cheeerfully working at the bar each night, but Midoriko is now an adult, a happy university student spending her summer holidays travelling with her long-term boyfriend.
It may seem that everything’s worked out for the trio, but in Natsuko’s case that’s not strictly true. Her writing has ground to a halt, with the research for the novel going nowhere, and even if her editor isn’t putting her under any pressure, Natsuko feels as if she’s letting everyone down. However, the real cause for concern is what’s happening away from her writing. Now in her late thirties, she feels as if life is slipping by, and her fear of missing out is intensifying almost by the day – and yet it’s not love, or physical affection she craves, but something more tangible. Is it too late, even at her age, and in her situation, to experience motherhood?
The second part of Kawakami’s story moves away from the family-driven drama of the original, and while you’ll be pleased to hear that Makiko and Midoriko do make appearances, this book is very much about Natsuko. This is clear from the title of the revised Japanese edition, 夏物語 (Natsu Monogatori), which Kawakami’s English-language Wikipedia page translates as Summer Stories. However, while both parts do take place (in part, at least) over the sweltering summer months, that rendering is slightly misleading for two reasons. The first is that it ignores the standard translation of ‘monogatori’ in English, the most famous example of which is 源氏物語 (Genji Monogatori), or The Tale of Genji. The second is that the Japanese title is actually a play on words involving Natsuko’s name. You see, her friends call her Natsu, and the Chinese character representing that name is the same one that’s used for ‘summer’, meaning an equally valid translation could be The Tale of Natsu(ko). No wonder the English version stuck with Breasts and Eggs 😉
There are two main strands to the story, with one following Natsuko’s literary career. The first chapters reveal more about Natsuko’s success, and her struggles, including a haughty editor who abandons her, and some serious mansplaining at a literary reading. We’re also introduced to a couple of new characters, her second editor, Ryoko Sengawa, and Rika Yusa, a popular writer Natsuko quickly becomes close to.
Yet as the story develops, it’s Natsuko’s yearning for a child that becomes the main topic. We learn more about why she’s alone, and has been for so long, from some frank admissions:
I understand wanting somebody beside you, wanting to hold somebody’s hand. I’d felt those bursts of passion after saying something major, or when it hit me just how strong my feelings were. I wanted to share this sensation, but once things started getting physical, my shoulders tightened, and I tensed up all over. Passion and sex were incompatible for me. They didn’t connect.
p.175 (Picador, 2020)
Having made the decision to avoid intimacy, Natsuko suddenly fears that her choice of solitude has come at a cost, spurring her into a very different kind of research, and a sudden fascination with sperm donors and artificial insemination. It’s on this journey that she meets a man, Jun Aizawa, who was born as a result of a donation, and has spent his whole adult life looking for his biological father. He’s to become an important figure in the dilemma Natsuko is wrestling with.
Book Two of Breasts and Eggs, then, examines the topic of artificial insemination, and the wider issue of family types, in the Japanese context. We learn very early on that it’s not quite as easy here as it is overseas, with government help restricted to traditional nuclear families, leaving single women and homosexual couples to fend for themselves. In addition, the laws permitting anonymous donations (and protecting the identity of the donor) mean that any child Natsuko has would end up in the same position as Jun, forcing her to reconsider her options.
Meanwhile, our writer friend begins to take a closer look at those around her, realising that there are many different kinds of family, even in her inner circle. There’s Rika, the single mum happy to have the occasional boyfriend and Sengawa, who is rich, busy and single. Even the one married friend she talks to, her former bookshop colleague Rie, has issues, with a depressed husband and a family forcing her to move to another prefecture. Then, of course, there are Aizawa and his partner Yuriko, both traumatised, for different reasons, and thoroughly determined not to bring a child into the world.
In addition to the ethical dilemmas Natsuko faces, there are more practical concerns as she begins to doubt whether she could cope, anyway. Even here, she receives conflicting advice, ranging from Risa’s cheery optimism to Sengawa’s carefully worded doubts:
“Isn’t that the way life is? There’s always something there, demanding all of your attention. Once you start going, the work never ends, especially when you work for a company. Life doesn’t change much except in those pivotal moments, right? If you don’t get sick or, yeah, end up getting pregnant. You know what I mean?” Sengawa massaged the skin under her eyes. “I don’t feel like I ever really made a conscious choice…” (p.271)
And yet that’s exactly what Natsuko is about to do, particularly when it is later made clear that having a child might just kill off the career she’s worked all her life to establish.
Many readers will have heard of Kawakami’s connections to Haruki Murakami, including a book published in Japan of her interviews with him, and there are more than a few nods in his direction in Breasts and Eggs. The two parts bring to mind Murakami’s early books and their recurring protagonist, and even if Kawakami’s novel is mostly set in the real world, there is a heavy reliance on dreams that feels very familiar. Most tellingly, for an attentive reader, there are lines that are also rather reminiscent of his work:
Like a row of white boxes, all lined up, the same shape and the same weight, the days of November came and went. (p.209)
Don’t deny it – that could have come straight from any Murakami novel you care to name.
Of course, Kawakami has a style and substance all of her own, and Breasts and Eggs is a well-crafted look at a very female, and Japanese, problem. The slightly larger page count allows for a more measured pace than in the first part, and the writer strikes an excellent balance between weariness, tragedy and humour (including a running gag in which people assume the writer’s name – Natsuko Natsume – is a pseudonym). Another nice touch was a scene where Rika discusses the use of Osaka dialect in writing, claiming that it never really seems to work (at which point, I’d refer you back to my review of Book One, where this is discussed in more detail!). There are breakdowns, illnesses and deaths, but these are broken up by Natsuko’s surreal dreams and a few odd real-life encounters, the most impressive of which is a bizarre meeting with a potential sperm donor. This is a scene that definitely sticks in the mind…
Many of the reviews I’ve glanced at since finishing the book seem to rate the original novella more highly, but if I’m honest, I probably enjoyed Book Two of Breasts and Eggs more. I’m not sure everyone will agree, but I felt it showed that Kawakami, like her protagonist, had developed as an author in the time between writing the two stories. Yes, some readers will feel a little sad that the family connections aren’t quite as strong this time around, but never fear. Without wanting to give too much away, there is a happy ending to be enjoyed, and in a nice parallel (which even involves another ferris wheel!), we’ll be catching up with Makiko and Midoriko again before the story’s done. In any case, whether your preference is for the condensed family tale or the more drawn-out existential drama, most readers will agree that this extended version of Kawakami’s early work is well worth seeking out, and I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll be seeing the book on prize longlists over the coming year 🙂