Mieko Kawakami is probably most famous for her book ‘Breasts and Eggs’, which has been translated into English and published in 2020. The first part, a novella, was originally published in 2007 by the monthly magazine ‘Bungakugai’ (Literary World) and was awarded with the Akutagawa Award in 2008.
The book with the English title ‘Breasts and Eggs’ is called 夏物語 (natsumonogatari) in Japanese, which means ‘summer story’ or ‘Natsu’s story’ and consists of two parts.
The first part is an edited version of the Japanese book called 乳と卵 (chichi to ran) which means ‘Breasts and Eggs’. The second part is the prolonged story of the narrator Natsume Natsuko. I do not know why the whole book was published with the title of the first part, but I guess ‘breasts and eggs’ sounds catchier than ‘a summer story’. Still, I find it confusing.
The first part is a novella which can be read alone.
Makiko and her daughter Midoriko are visiting Natsuko in Tokyo. Makiko is 39 years old and works as a bar hostess in Ôsaka. Midoriko is a teenager. Natsuko and her sister Makiko grew up in poverty in Ôsaka. Their mother had been working as a hostess too, she died of cancer, so had their grandmother. Natsuko tried to escape the tristesse and poverty by becoming an author in Tokyo. The novella is about a short visit of three days, which grows slowly but unavoidable into a tragedy.
The second part tells the story of Natsuko years later. Makiko and Midoriko are playing minor roles in the background.
Natsuke is now a female writer in her late 30s. We read about Natsuko’s mostly lonely life in Tokyo as a successful writer. This part reads more like a journal, where we get to know about her daily routines and meetings with friends and her female editor. When Natsuko hears about an ex-boyfriend’s marriage, she is reflecting her lifestyle as a single woman in Japan. She gets obsessed with the idea of getting pregnant by sperm donation from a direct donor. The atmosphere is oppressive, her reflections are meandering and repetitive.
‘Breasts and Eggs’ deals with feminist themes: female body image, life as a single woman, female sexuality, pregnancy, single motherhood, poverty and poor working conditions in Japan. All of these are exciting and important topics to discuss.
I liked the first part very much. It is originally and skillfully narrated. It is lively, and I read it in one go. I was very much impressed and emotionally touched. It is an exciting stand-alone novella.
The second part, however, is clearly not written as well as the first part. It is different in style and both parts seem to be glued together. Natsuko’s days are boring. She is depressed. Nearly nothing happens. And then, suddenly, she wants to get pregnant. All characters are rather stereotypical, and the story is far too long. At around page 256 I had enough and wanted everything to be over but had to read another 174 pages to finish the novel. I do not say it often, but the second part was rather a disappointment. Mieko Kawakami is strong with novellas like Ms Ice Sandwich and with the original ‘Breasts and Eggs’. The longer version was not as exciting, as I hoped.
川上未映子. 夏物語. 文藝春秋,2019 (Cover).
Mieko Kawakami. Breasts and Eggs. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Europa Editions, 2020 (Cover).