Translated by Sam Bett & David Boyd
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
When Breasts and Eggs appeared in bookshops alongside all the Murakamis, Convenience Store Woman and Stranger Weather in Tokyo — the literature that is always up and front in the UK displays of Japanese books — my first reaction was excitement about Mieko Kawakami making her debut among them. Then the puzzlement and frustration followed as I made my way through the 400-page novel and went deeper into the lives of the three women at its heart. Kawakami made her literary debut in 2006 in Japan and has been reaping prizes ever since (including the Akutagawa Prize, one of the two most prestigious in Japan). Yet we’re getting to know her only now with the first translation of her work into English. Reading Breasts and Eggs, you will want the whole back catalogue.
The story follows Natsuko, a struggling writer in her thirties who has moved to Tokyo to pursue her literary dream, her older sister Makiko, an ageing hostess in a run-down bar, and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko, who has stopped talking to her family. We meet the trio for the first time in stifling Tokyo heat where Makiko and Midoriko have travelled to visit their sister and aunt. It’s been a short eternity since the sisters met up, but Makiko has developed an obsession with breast enlargement, and their visit is fraught with tension, trouble, and flashbacks to the sisters’ childhood in poverty.
If the first part is about Breasts, the second is Eggs, where ten years later it is Natsuko grappling with an uncertain future and a yearning for a child. Her obsession, like larger breasts for Makiko, is finding a sperm donor — which, we learn, is not possible for single women through mainstream healthcare in Japan.
Breasts and Eggs is billed as a description of working class womanhood in Japan, and of coping in a society where the odds are stacked against you, and in many ways it is exactly that; this is particularly so in the childhood snippets where the sisters’ mother and grandmother epitomise the very concept of strong women who have to overcome an abusive father and the absence of money.
It is, however, a feminist novel beyond class as well: Kawakami introduces a cast of women who all find, or are forced to find, independence in different ways. There are Makiko’s hostess colleagues who fight for electricity, Natsuko’s publisher Sengawa who is all work, no family, and the single mother literary star Rika who breaks norms as easily as she builds her writing career. Kawakami explores feminist issues surrounding cosmetic surgery and hostess work, and the moral conundrums associated with having children. In one of the most powerful scenes, Natsuko discusses with Yuriko, an activist for children who have been conceived using donor sperm, whether anyone has the right to bring a new person into the world.
The themes are big, but not stiflingly so. Kawakami pulls it off with a lightness that is particularly enjoyable in the sharp dialogue between the sisters. The prose has an earthy quality to it: the narrative goes into public baths, surrounded by naked bodies, soaks up summer sweat and peeks into houses with little space and a lot of beer. At its best, Kawakami’s writing is unpretentious and raw; Makiko’s monologue on the wonders of nipples in a public bath delivers a feminist message and is unashamedly funny at the same time.
The only flaw in this gem of a book is that non-Japanese speakers are getting hold of it only now. This is gritty realism and modern ethics packed into one delightful read.
Anna is a bookworm, student linguist and journalist.
Meiko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs (Picador, 2020). 978-1509898206, 320pp., paperback.
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