I was only a few pages into this book when I realised I was gritting my teeth, despite admiring the author’s sharp observations of teen angst, existentialism and desire. That’s because the prevailing mood of this slim novel is dread.
The protagonist is a 14-year-old boy. Brutally tormented by school bullies who call him Eyes because of his lazy eye, he becomes friends with another of their victims, a girl named Kojima. Their relationship is tentative, mundane and revelatory, as first relationships often are, and Kawakami’s dialogue captures the meandering wisdom of young teens whose ideas are beginning to coalesce into something approximating a world view. The pair bear witness to each other’s misery and pool their secrets, wounds and the private practices that offer solace or control, or at least an interruption to their daily terror.
Kawakami’s terse, utilitarian sentences render the violence with devastating clarity: “My pulse crunched in my ear, like wet sand.” Our protagonist is made to eat chalk, toilet water, a goldfish; he is beaten to a bloody pulp. It makes for uncomfortable, claustrophobic reading, as though you are party to the cruelty but unwilling to intervene. Although the story is set in Japan in the early 1990s – a period of economic stagnation and pre-Y2K foreboding that mirrors the novel’s undercurrent of anxiety – the Gothic qualities of the text feel timeless and universal. The author’s delight in viscera brings to mind Georges Bataille.
Through the teen characters, Kawakami explores competing understandings of life and pain. Kojima’s attitude squares with Christian and Buddhist theology: she believes she can rise above the experience of victimisation through forbearance. “Our will is intact,” she says. Everything happens for a reason and suffering has meaning. Momose – one of the bullies – provides a nihilistic counterpoint. “People do what they can get away with,” he tells the protagonist.
The novel swings between these perspectives and between hot and cold. In climactic moments Kawakami’s prose is feverish and high-pitched; elsewhere the narrator’s voice is cool, almost clinical. She compares Kojima’s voice to a 6B pencil, “soft and rigid at the same time”. Beyond the horror at school is an adult world with its own banal humiliations and opportunities. Whether suffering means anything, what is certain is beauty, clarity and change.
Picador, 192pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "Heaven, Mieko Kawakami".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription