Fiction – paperback; Picador; 167 pages; 2021. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Brett and David Boyd. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a novella about the impact of bullying on a teenage boy and how his friendship with a girl suffering similar schoolyard abuse gives him the courage to keep on going.
It’s set in the early 1990s, before the advent of the internet, social media and smartphones (which would arguably make things worse or, at least, different), and presents a world that is both violent and nihilistic.
A secret alliance
Narrated by “Eyes”, a 14-year-old boy, who is ruthlessly bullied at school because he has a lazy eye, it charts his last tormented year at middle school before graduating to high school. His only friend is Kojima, a female classmate, who is dubbed “Hazmat” by the same bullies because she supposedly smells and has dirty hair.
Their friendship is a secret one because to admit their solidarity would only encourage the students who persecute them so shamelessly already. The pair communicate via notes and letters and meet in the stairwell when no one is looking. They even go on a train trip together, a journey that solidifies their alliance and helps them get to know each other outside of the classroom.
There’s not much of a plot. The storyline simply highlights how Eyes is treated by his fellow students and shows how he tries to rise above his situation by not fighting back, accepting their terrible treatment of him in silence and nursing his pain alone.
When he does build up the courage to confront one of his attackers, following a distressing scene in a school gymnasium (be warned, there are some violent scenes in this book – they’re not gratuitous, but they are confronting), he’s essentially gaslit into thinking he’s got it all wrong.
“You said we do it for no reason, right? I agree with that, but so what? What’s wrong with that? I mean, if you want us to leave you alone, you’re totally free to want that. But I’m totally free to ignore what you want. That’s where things don’t add up. You’re mad that the world doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, right? Like, right now is a good example. You can walk up to me and say you want to talk, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen. Know what I mean?”
I replayed in my head what Momose had just said and looked at his hands.
“More than that, though,” he said. “I got to tell you. This whole thing about you looking the way you look. You make it sound like that’s why we act the way we do, but that’s got nothing to do with it.”
Eventually, even his friendship with Kojima begins to flounder when he realises that she’s not there to support him to escape the bullies but to merely comfort herself by the idea she’s not suffering alone.
This Japanese novella, expertly translated by Sam Brett and David Boyd, is a good examination of bullying behaviour — why people do it, how they get away with it and the long-term serious repercussions on those who suffer it.
There’s an alarming absence of adult intervention, whether by parent or teacher, which is probably indicative of a problem that can go undetected for a long time if the perpetrators are careful and the victim is too scared to speak up.
Heaven is profound and disturbing, but it’s also melancholy, intimate and tender, and there’s something about the hypnotic prose style that gets under the skin and leaves a lasting impression.
And thankfully, despite all the violence and the terror, the story ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note…
This is my 8h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I accepted this one for review because regular readers of this blog will know I am quite partial to Japanese fiction. I’d been quite keen to read Kawakami’s previous novel, ‘Breasts and Eggs’, now. This is also my 7th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.
10 thoughts on “‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami”
Bullying seems to be the new … oh…I was going to write ‘epidemic’… and then I realised we can’t use that word the way we used to…
I appreciate the comment Lisa, but shouldn’t you be resting your wrist!
The bullying in this book is downright cruel and violent. Poor old Eyes really cops the brunt of it. But the bullies are clever enough not to leave any physical marks on him so no one ever notices…
I’ve had no experience of bullying, not in the systemic way that this and other books describe. Perhaps Australian country high schools are (or were) more easy going. I read Lord of the Flies in fifth form and it seemed then and now like something on another planet. I still wonder where these youthful sociopaths come from and who enables them.
And yes, I am open to the possibility that as a white, capable and mildly athletic student I was unaware of what was going on around me.
(I am also open to reading more Japanese Lit.)
Well, one theory posited by this novel is that bullies target people that “scare” them because they’re not seen as normal people – so anyone who is slightly different, such as Eyes with his lazy eye and Kojima with her smelly hair, are brought down to size. I can’t say I was ever bulled at school but I was certainly teased (for being “a brain”)
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This sounds interesting Kim, but one I think I’d have to be in the mood for…
It’s a short read, Cathy, so the beauty is you can read it in the space of a day when the mood strikes you.
I’m reading Breasts and Eggs at the moment and am about a quarter way through. I’m really enjoying it, but the subject-matter of Heaven (bullying) appeals to me even more, so I definitely want to get to it.
Apologies I didn’t reply to this at the time… don’t know how I missed this comment, Laura. I was put off by the title ‘Breasts and Eggs’ when it first came out, but now that I have read ‘Heaven’ I’d like to go back and try her earlier novel. I do like contemporary Japanese fiction.
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No worries! I’ve now finished Breasts and Eggs and I really liked it.
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