Books & Literature

Book Review: Heaven, by Mieko Kawakami

CONTEMPORARY: Hailed as a bold foray into new literary territory, Kawakami’s novel is told in the voice of a fourteen-year-old student subjected to relentless torment for having a lazy eye.The only person who understands what he is going through is a female classmate who suffers similar treatment.

Horrifying, poetic, and profound.

Japanese author Mieko Kawakami is fast carving herself a place in world literature. Her novel, Breasts and Eggs, was named one of Time’s Best 10 Books of 2020. 

This newly translated work, Heaven, originally published in 2009, explores ugly violence and cruelty, submission and meekness, and personal autonomy. It is told in first-person by a 14-year-old student, whose lazy eye has led him to be relentlessly bullied both inside and outside of school. He doesn’t fight back for fear of escalating the violence, nor does he tell his family, lest they are ashamed of him.

One day, Kojima, a girl in his class who is also being bullied, leaves him a note suggesting they should be friends. The novel continues to be partly epistolary with the two friends often better able to express themselves through their notes than in person. Interestingly, both characters have absent fathers and unusual home lives. Kawakami certainly pushes back against the trope of the traditional Japanese family. 

But this is no YA coming-of-age romance. The bullies, although seemingly lead by Ninomiya, seem to find “spiritual” leadership under the enigmatic Momose, who often stands back and watches. Eventually Momose, in an unexpected scene, will speak the nihilistic manifesto which drives the torment and violence. 

Kawakami’s choice of first-person for the narrative allows us under the skin of the protagonist, but also keeps Kojima enigmatic. We watch her extraordinary behaviour, listen to her profound words, and wonder at her motivations. In the end, we, like the narrator, are confronted, challenged, and changed, by her. 

Heaven is no easy read. As a novel, it flows and draws one on to turn pages, but the content, like Kojima herself, is complex and discomforting. Sam Bett and David Boyd have done an excellent job on translation: no sense of clumsiness in the English, whilst maintaining a Japanese rhythm to the prose. 

Kawakami is one of the great Japanese writers of her generation and Heaven’s English translation is sure to embed her in the Western canon as well. 

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan
Released: 25 May 2021
RRP: $32.99

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