Book Review: Heaven

book cover Heaven
“Heaven” is an early novel by Kawakami Mieko which has been published in Japan in 2009 and won the “Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature”. The English translation was published in May 2021.

Kawakami Mieko was born in 1976 and is a Japanese singer and writer from Osaka. She also wrote “Ms Ice Sandwich” and “Breasts and Eggs” which became popular in 2020.

The main theme of “Heaven” is school bullying (“ijime”), an important topic of social relevance in Japan. It is alarming that children are going through bullying every day. So, this book is not about heaven. It is about living in hell.

The novel is narrated from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy who is being bullied by his classmates. It depicts his experiences of violence and his secret friendship with a girl who is also an outsider and victim of bullying. Most of the scenes are set in school. Here, students who are slightly different do not fit in, and therefore are being bullied. This behavior is being tolerated by everyone.

Kawakami Mieko describes the physical and emotional violence against the main character(s) and the inner thoughts and emotions, mainly of fear and terror of the boy mockingly called “Eyes”. He is being brutally abused by his classmates throughout the story. From chapter to chapter there is a climax of violence, and the story comes with several shock moments. The reading experience is therefore disturbing and in parts excruciating.

The main characters are teenagers, the presentation of their behavior and the use of youth language is reliable und realistic. The dialogues sound typical for young adults.

Ms Ice Sandwich”, a later novella written by Kawakami Mieko, provides similar characters. It is also a coming-of-age story, but with a more positive tone. The main characters are two middle-schoolers who become friends. The book describes several charming moments. Although the schoolchildren are living through hardships at school, they find love and friendship in their free time. There is positivity when both teenagers are watching movies together. Adult characters are present, like a caring father, a sick grandmother, and of course Ms Ice Sandwich.

In “Heaven” relaxed situations are in the minority. Apart from a trip to a museum and some scenes of leisure time the narration focuses on cruelty and abuse. Parents are mostly absent, and teachers look the other way.

Kawakami Mieko is a talented writer. Her novels show the right amount of Japanese weirdness, which is popular among many readers, and she knows how to tell a story technically and how to build up suspense. The question remains if the presentation of extreme violence is necessary for the story.

There was an enormous hype about “Heaven” in 2021. Many reviews are enthusiastic, but the novel has also been controversially discussed, and it seems to be one of these books you either love or hate.

Although it can be labeled as an YA-novel, it is not suitable for readers with weak nerves because of the violence and disturbing scenes. Readers who are fans of Kirino’s “Real World” or “Earthlings” by Murata Sayaka will surely like “Heaven”.

Reviewed Title
川上未映. ヘヴン. 2009
Kawakami Mieko. Heaven. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Europa Editions, 2021 (cover).

Further reading
If you are interested in the subject of “school bullying” here are some informative articles about “ijime” in Japan for further reading and deeper understanding:
Japan Zone: “Ijime, the Disease of the Classroom”
Gaijinpot: “Beating the Bullies: Tackling ijime in Japan”
Savvy Tokyo: “Bullying in Japanese Schools”

 

Top Ten of Japanese Books – My Year of Reading in 2021

In 2021 there were some new Japanese titles on the market I was interested in. My impression is, there were less new English translations available, and the new titles tend to be popular crime fiction or YA books. Throughout the year I have read regularly but not as much as in the years before. I was a little picky with my reading choices and was rewarded with some surprisingly interesting novels and short stories.

So, here is my top ten-list of Japanese books I have read in 2021 although not all of them were published in 2021. (Japanese names are written in Japanese order, where the family name comes first then the personal name.)

10. The Lake by Yoshimoto Banana

bookcover- Banana Yoshimoto- The LakeA young woman is mourning over her deceased mother and moves to Tokyo. There she meets a man with a tragic family history. Both are struggling to cope with the past. Although it is difficult in the beginning, the protagonists find new hope and love eventually. Yoshimoto’s style is sensible, emotional without kitsch and original as ever. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

9. Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami Mieko

book cover- Mieko Kawakami- Breasts and Eggs- english version A controversial discussed book about a modern 30something female author in Japan. It is about modern family, birth wish and loneliness. Her writing style is exciting although there are lengths in the storytelling. Kawakami is a promising author and I will probably read more from her in the future. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

8. Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko

Cover Image Where The Wild Ladies Are by Aoko MatsudaAn exciting short story collection based on traditional Japanese myths transferred into the modern Japanese world. Feminism with a twinkle in the eye and beautiful storytelling. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

7. First Person Singular by Murakami Haruki

A short story collection with Murakami’s typical ingredients: magical realism, love stories and music. There is nothing to complain about it and I will enjoy reading his books until the end of time. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

6. A Man by Hirano Keiichirô

This book is a surprisingly well-constructed crime novel. It is about identity theft, family drama, and discrimination of Korean citizens in Japan. Hirano Keiichirô is a talented writer who combines an exciting crime fictional story with a much-avoided historical topic in Japan.

 

5. The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Imamura Natsuko

Winner of the Akutagawa Award in 2019. Modern Japanese workplace, harassment, high tension environment. A Japanese female author I discovered this year. I would like to read more books written by her. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

4. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

A portrait of modern Japanese society narrated by a woman in her thirties who lives a life of an outcast in Tokyo. Sharp, mean, witty. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

3. Klara and the Sun by Ishiguro Kazuo

cover image Klara and the Sun by Kazu IshiguroHis first book after winning the Nobel Prize of Literature. The novel is told from the perspective of an artificial being named Klara. A modern, interesting perspective, and a play with words. A portrait of a society in a not so far future. Subtle, sharp observations. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

2. Death by Water by Ôe Kenzaburô

bookcover- Kenzaburô Ôe- Death by Water The Nobel Prize-winning author wrote a book about coming to terms with the past. It takes place in wartime Japan and the present, he also weaves in his personal experiences as a father and writer. Longlisted for the 2016 Man International Booker Prize. Complex, philosophical and full of Japanese culture and history. Full book review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

 

1. At the End of the Matinee by Hirano Keiichirô

cover picture At the End of the Matinee by Keiichro Hirano

This book is the highlight of the year for me. I discovered the author this year. It is a love story of a male musician and a female journalist. Modern, romantic and tragic. The writing style is interesting and philosophical. The story takes place in different cities: Tokyo, Paris, New York, Baghdad, Madrid. Hirano writes about modern topics and weaves them into an emotional timeless novel.

 

My top 10-Ranking-Overview

  1. At the End of the Matinee by Hirano Keiichirô
  2. Death by Water by Ôe Kenzaburô
  3. Klara and the Sun by Ishiguro Kazuo
  4. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  5. The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Imamura Natsuko
  6. A Man by Hirano Keiichirô
  7. First Person Singular by Murakami Haruki
  8. Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko
  9. Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami Mieko
  10. The Lake by Yoshimoto Banana

So, that’s it. What are your favorite Japanese books of 2021?

Thank you for reading. I hope you all stay healthy. Take care. I wish you all the best.

Book Review: Breasts and Eggs

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 “Bungakukai” (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 stand-alone novella.

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 unavoidably into a tragedy.

Japanese_Cover_Breast_and_Eggs

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.

Evaluation

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.

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 novella “Breasts and Eggs”. The longer version was not as exciting, as I hoped.

Reviewed title
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).