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.
Breasts and Eggs began as a novella which focused on the Natsuko, who is unmarried, Makiko who is struggling to come to terms with how her body changed after pregnancy and birth and her daughter Midoriko, who is facing struggles of her own with her body changing too. This has evolved into following what happened twenty years later where they still face some struggles whilst others have turned into completely new ones.
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.