Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami’s first novel to be translated into English, explores the mundane indignity of inhabiting a woman’s body. It opens with 30-year-old Natsuko meeting her elder sister Makiko and sullen adolescent niece Midoriko at Tokyo Station. Makiko seeks breast-enhancement surgery while Midoriko has not spoken in months, wrestling with her changing body and inability to supplement her mother’s meagre bar-hostess income. This tension – cleverly interspersed with Midoriko’s sharp yet poignant diary entries – builds to an explosive showdown.
Eight years later, Natsuko obsessively explores her options as a single childless woman, navigating the ethics and judgement surrounding donor conception. Well-developed minor characters – a blunt yet supportive editor, a charismatic fellow writer, the adult son of an anonymous donor – inject personality and a range of views in an engaging, non-didactic way, complicating traditional ideas of femininity, motherhood and the family unit. As these conversations inch the narrative forwards, the dialogue is broken up by Natsuko’s unpredictable actions and subtle digs at Tokyo’s literary scene, particularly its more inflated male figures.
Kawakami’s prose is matter-of-fact, with flashes of sensory detail, surrealism and humour that verges on grotesque. In one scene, an overenthusiastic sperm donor emphasises the quality of his semen; in another, Makiko describes the painfully futile process of bleaching her nipples pink. Sam Bett and David Boyd’s co-translation pays attention to voice, capturing the lively spirit of the sisters’ Osaka dialect. That said, the occasional clumsy phrase niggles, producing an uneven experience.
“Life is hard enough with just one body,” 12-year-old Midoriko writes. “Why would anyone ever want to make another one?” The grinding effects of intergenerational poverty, both physical and psychological, are neither romanticised nor glossed over. Meanwhile, the stultifying heat emphasises Natsuko’s stasis as a single woman nearing middle age and her struggles to complete a follow-up novel. Beneath the “will she, won’t she” narrative lies a bigger question: “What right do we have to bring into being those who never asked to be born?” Breasts and Eggs invites patient readers to ponder choices both within and beyond one’s control.
Picador, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2020 as "Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs ".
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