Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Publisher: Picador
Publication Date:
12/05/2020
Length: 430 pages
Genre:
Translated Fiction | Japanese Fiction | Contemporary Fiction

CW: n/a

Blackwells.co.uk

An earlier novella published in Japan with the same title focused on the female body, telling the story of three women: the thirty-year-old unmarried narrator, her older sister Makiko, and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko. Unable to come to terms with her changed body after giving birth, Makiko becomes obsessed with the prospect of getting breast enhancement surgery. Meanwhile, her twelve-year-old daughter Midoriko is paralyzed by the fear of her oncoming puberty and finds herself unable to voice the vague, yet overwhelming anxieties associated with growing up. The narrator, who remains unnamed for most of the story, struggles with her own indeterminable identity of being neither a “daughter” nor a “mother.” Set over three stiflingly hot days in Tokyo, the book tells of a reunion of sorts, between two sisters, and the passage into womanhood of young Midoriko.

In this greatly expanded version, a second chapter in the story of the same women opens on another hot summer’s day ten years later. The narrator, single and childless, having reconciled herself with the idea of never marrying, nonetheless feels increasing anxiety about growing old alone and about never being a mother. In episodes that are as comical as they are revealing of deep yearning, she seeks direction from other women in her life—her mother, her grandmother, friends, as well as her sister—and only after dramatic and frequent changes of heart, decides in favor of artificial insemination. But this decision in a deeply conservative country in which women’s reproductive rights are under constant threat is not one that can be acted upon without great drama.

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Review

Next on my journey in Japanese fiction is Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, her first full length novel to be translated into English. Hopefully this is just the first of many as I loved this novel and Kawakami’s writing style.

I really liked Natsuko Natsume (no, that isn’t her pen name) and her perspective of being a woman in Japan. She was such an interesting character who I found likeable and also quite relatable. Although she faces different struggles as a woman in Japan compared to women in the West, there weren aspects of her life and her decisions that are universal, which I think a lot of readers would be able to understand. I really enjoyed her perspective on the world and how she interacted with the other women in her life, especially her sister, Makiko, and niece, Midoriko. It was also interesting to see how differently Natsuko and Makiko viewed the world despite being sisters with the same upbringing. 

In this novel Kawakami does an excellent job of creating complex relationships between the characters as well as the complex relationship some women have with the concept of motherhood. I liked the contrast between the first part of the novel, with the focus being on the relationship between Makiko and Midoriko and then the second part of the novel with Natsuko on her own and trying to figure out what she wants in terms of a family, and if she was her own one at all. In the first part of the novel, it was fascinating to read about the standards of beauty that Makiko is holding herself to and the extremes that she will go to in order to meet them. Especially as we also got to see how this impacted her daughter, who was experiencing her own fears with her inevitable puberty, which meant she stopped speaking completely. 

I also really enjoyed the second part of the novel which not only looked at the role (or absent role) of motherhood but, it also depicted very genuine relationships between women and how the family can impact this. Whilst there are moments of humour which work really well, this section tackles the serious conflict of not wanting to marry but also not wanting to grow old alone and the options that are available to ensure this. As a country with a declining population, I was also fascinated to read about the restrictions in place when it comes to artificial insemination; as well as the different character’s opinions on it. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel and the insight it provides into life as a Japanese woman in Japan. Kawakami wonderfully creates characters that feel very real which makes reading about their lives and experiences even more gripping. I highly recommend checking out this novel for a fresh and authentic perspective of Japan. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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