Mieko Kawakami has divided opinion in her home country of Japan with her novel Breasts and Eggs. Lauded publicly by Haruki Murakami, arguably Japan’s best-known author, who has named Kawakami as one of his favourite writers, it has also attracted criticism from Shintaro Ishihara, formerly Tokyo’s governor and himself a writer, who described it as “unpleasant and intolerable”.
The book has, however, sold 250,000 copies in Japan and was nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa prize in 2008 in its original novella form. Now, with a second part added and in a new translation, it has propelled Kawakami onto an international stage.
Originally written as a blog – Kawakami started her career as a musician, then as a poet and popular blogger – the novel tells the story of sisters Makiko and Natsuko and Makiko’s teenage daughter Midoriko, who refuses to communicate with her mother verbally, instead writing everything down.
“She talks to everybody at school like normal,” says Midoriko, glibly, when Natsuko asks her about the situation with her niece. “It’s a phase, it can’t last forever. It’s fine, totally fine.”
Maikiko, in her late thirties, has come from the working class city of Osaka to visit her sister in Tokyo to investigate the idea of breast implants, with the aim, she says, of creating the “kind of body that you see in girly magazines”.
The second part of the book, which was not part of the original novella, turns to Natsuko and her desire to have a child of her own, considering an anonymous sperm donor and solo parenthood.
Breasts and Eggs is quirky and, at times, suddenly and unexpectedly dark. It also deals with detailed accounts of things which most novels do not – female urinary tract issues, menstruation and sex.
The first-person narrative and high proportion of dialoguemakes the pace snappy and the story easy to read. The second part has a more mature writing style, which is perhaps not a surprise, given it was written nearly a decade after the first. However, this doesn’t detract from the flow of the novel as a whole. Rather, it highlights the differences between Natsuko and Makiko, and the different problems they face.
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, Picador, £12.99. Mieko Kawakami is appearing online as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival on 27 August
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