Translated by Sam Bett & David Boyd
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
My first encounter with Mieko Kawakami — as for most of us relying on English translations — was her feminist tour de force Breasts and Eggs. I sung the praise (and still do) of the story about the gritty reality of two sisters, one a struggling writer and the other a hostess driven to obsession with breasts, and one daughter who refuses to speak. I can also remember my frustration as I realized that it had taken the multi-award-winning novel, originally published in 2006, nearly fifteen years to be translated. I was ready to go on the barricades to demand for the rest of Kawakami’s back catalogue to be translated as a matter of urgency, please and thank you.
Now that wish has been partly answered in the form of Heaven, from 2007. Like Breasts and Eggs, it’s gritty but on a different level, ramping its hard-edgedness up into teenager hell. The narrator is a 14-year-old boy who is known as “Eyes” at school for having a lazy eye. That leads to him being regularly beaten up, humiliated and subjected to whatever forms of torture his bullies can conjure up. At home, his father is mostly absent and his mother — his father’s new wife — fails to pay attention to what is going on, and the narrator is trapped in shame about his situation.
Life for him is surviving from one day to the next, until he finds a note in his school desk. It’s from Kojima in his class, also known as “Hazmat” for her dirty appearance, who is equally relentlessly bullied. The narrator ignores the little letters at first, assuming them to be another cruel way of getting at him, but as they keep appearing, he finally gives in. What ensues is a friendship of sorts, conducted mainly through notes and never raising its head above the surface at school. As the deeply troubled teenagers find solace in each other, they’re ultimately forced to ask what friendship is really about when the shared bond is one of terror.
I rarely lose sleep because of books, but Heaven resulted in a sleepless night or two because of its unrelenting despair and cruelty (for the record, the only other books that have succeeded in doing so are The Silence of the Girls, featuring rape and torture, and The Handmaid’s Tale, featuring much the same — Heaven is in hard-hitting company). That’s testament to Kawakami’s masterful descriptions of psychological darkness, plunging the reader in with the narrator and his conviction that being bullied is his fate forever. The same goes for the physical brutality; a scene where the bullies discover the game of human football is one of slow-burning suspense, as if it’s not just the narrator who has his head stuffed into a volleyball, but the reader too.
As much as the narrator draws the reader into his dark mental space, the true masterpiece of character creation is Kojima. Although she remains distant throughout, the glimpses that are granted into her thoughts mark her as one of the most unique personalities that I’ve come across in literature recently. It’s easy to veer into clichés when writing trampled-upon characters, but Kojima is anything but; determined that her suffering has a meaning, she’s the one who won’t leave me in peace after the last pages.
However, the brilliance of the story-telling suffers from a stiltedness in style. In Breasts and Eggs, one of the highlights was Kawakami’s unpretentious and raw writing and the sharp dialogue between the sisters. In Heaven, that touch is lost somewhat. True, the characters are precocious, but at the same time some of their encounters turn into faux-philosophical outpourings that you cannot imagine coming out of their mouths. When the narrator confronts one of his bullies, the ensuing conversation reads a bit like an extract from an imaginary handbook to the psychology of bullying; it’s as if both parties are dummies for theoretical positions that are firmly separated from their reality.
There is also a clichédness to some of the imagery that dampens otherwise powerful scenes. Without spoiling too much, during the climax “the rain was getting harder. The thunder wasn’t stopping. Every minute or so, a jagged bolt would crack across the umber of the sky, lighting up the sheets of rain. Puddles were forming all over the ground.” There is simply too much of “there was a dark and stormy night” to make an otherwise valuable scene convincing.
Stylistic weaknesses aside, Heaven is worthy addition to the fast-growing body of translated Japanese literature. It’s not Kawakami’s best, but when the best is excellent, you can allow for some slips.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Meiko Kawakami, Heaven (Picador, 2021). 978-1509898244, 192pp., paperback original.
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