While it may not have made the International Booker Prize longlist, there’s no doubt that Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) was one of the most successful and celebrated works of fiction in translation last year, so I suspect I wasn’t the only reader eagerly awaiting her next book in English. Well, today’s the day (in Australia, at least), and even if this one’s a little shorter than its predecessor, I predict that it’s going to be another one making a big splash. However, if you’re looking for a comfort read, you might be in for a disappointment – you see, despite its title, this is a book where the main characters are going through hell…
Heaven (again translated by Boyd and Bett, review copy courtesy of Picador Australia) is narrated by a fourteen-year-old middle-school student who unfortunately stands out in a bad way. His lazy eye makes him a natural target for bullies, and he does his best to avoid drawing attention to himself, so he’s naturally suspicious when he starts finding notes left in his desk, asking him to be friends, especially when one asks for a meeting.
While convinced it’s a trap, he eventually decides he might as well face the music, but surprisingly it’s not one of the bullies, he finds waiting for him at the local park, but Kojima, a girl in his class who is also subject to the other students’ unwelcome attentions. This first meeting leads to more, and to the start of a friendship in which two likeminded kids help each other cope with the pain of everyday life. However, as the bullies keep coming for them, and Kojima remains firm in her belief that the two friends are strong enough to hold out, the boy wonders whether they are so alike after all.
Breasts and Eggs, understandably so, is a huge part of the marketing for this book, yet Heaven actually has a lot more in common with Kawakami’s first release in English, Ms Ice Sandwich (tr. Lousie Heal Kawai), given its young first-person protagonist. That one was very much a YA book, but while I initially thought Heaven was going in the same direction, it turned out to be a slightly more mature, darker and more ambiguous work. Kawakami has created a moving story examining the trauma and torture of teenage life and manages to carefully walk the line between a saccharine story and full-blown brutality and misery porn.
The title comes from a visit to an art gallery on the two friends’ first outing together, where Kojima talks about her favourite painting, depicting lovers eating cake in a room:
“Do you call it that because they’re dead?”
“No.” Kojima spoke to me in a low voice coming from the back of her throat. “Something really painful happened to them. Something really, really sad. But know what? They made it through. That’s why they can live in perfect harmony. After everything, after all the pain, they made it here. It looks like a normal room, but it’s really Heaven.”
p.38 (Picador, 2021)
It’s something she seems to be aspiring to, a safe place away from life’s torment, and this fun day at the start of the summer holidays works almost as an example of the kind of sanctuary both friends are looking for.
Cleverly, they never see the painting on this visit, and that’s symbolic of the way Heaven unrolls. Rather than making this a heart-warming story of underdogs triumphing, Kawakami clinically shows that life isn’t that fair. The bullying continues, intensifies even, and while it helps Kojima to know that someone is silently on her side, the unnamed narrator isn’t convinced that this passive support is enough to help him go on. As the year passes, and the torture continues, his thoughts turn in dark directions, and he starts to despair of enduring under middle school is over.
The story is told by the boy, but in truth it’s Kojima who steals the show. She’s the one who has the energy to reach out to the narrator, and she surprises him with her rather different approach to the bullying, deciding to endure it, to confront it, rather than hiding from it as her friend does. At times, it appears as if she’s deliberately provoking the class, and her appearance and smell, the main reasons for the bullying, are actually deliberate, something she’s chosen to embrace. It’s only later that we learn the surprising reason behind her choices, and why she refuses to make changes that could make her life easier.
Kojima may appear the stronger of the two friends, but as the novel progresses the narrator (and the reader) begins to wonder if her approach really is better. Cracks appear in her facade, her behaviour slowly beginning to change, and the boy starts to wonder about her claims:
Weakness matters, she said. It has real meaning. I was silent, focused on her voice. But know what, she said, if weakness matters, then so does strength. (p.156)
But are they strong enough? There’s a distinct sense that her resistance can’t last forever, a feeling that one day she’ll blow, and when that happens, there’s a good chance that those around her will be caught in the fall-out.
Heaven may be a short novel, but it’s expertly constructed and nicely paced, with the story structured around several pivotal scenes that never seem forced. What I enjoyed most about it is the way Kawakami always catches the right tone. The story is realistic, and even if it can be brutal, it never strays into the realm of fantasy movie violence. On the flip side, the more heart-warming scenes also have their limits, and the writer always stops them from becoming sickly-sweet and disturbing the tone.
Another of the book’s strong points is the characterisation, with even the supporting cast expertly portrayed. Both of the main protagonists have issues at home, whether it’s the narrator’s absent father or Kojima’s slimy step-father, but the best depiction is the boy’s step-mother, who hovers in the background, not wanting to overstep the mark while obviously concerned about him. Even the boy’s tormentors are more than two-dimensional props, and the nonchalant Momose, who bullies the boy without taking the lead, is a fascinating character, with a very interesting take on the group’s behaviour. Contrary to what the narrator suspects, it turns out that it’s nothing personal…
Heaven is a fairly different book to Breasts and Eggs, but it’s definitely a successful follow-up, a nuanced and at times disturbing story of a pivotal year in a boy’s life. As mentioned above, the idea of Heaven is the hope of a safe place, somewhere to retreat to in happy times. Sadly, though, these happy times can be few and far between – the two friends will find that they must go through many dark times to find any glimmer of peace.