One of Japan’s rising stars in the literary world is singer-turned-writer Mieko Kawakami. Winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and numerous other awards, Kawakami’s latest work translated into English Breasts and Eggs was receiving acclaim long before its release. After an agonizing wait, I finally got my hands on a electronic copy through my local library. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on this phenomenal novel.
Breasts and Eggs is composed of two novellas told from the point of view of struggling writer Natsuko. In Book One, Natsuko’s older sister Makiko and her daughter Midoriko visit Natsuko in Tokyo. Makiko, a bar hostess in her late thirties, is dead-set on having her breasts augmented, a months-long obsession that puzzles Natsuko even as she supports her sister’s wishes.
Contrasting Makiko’s exuberance is Midoriko, who wages a quiet stubborn war within herself, having not verbally communicated with her mother for several months, relying on a notepad and pen instead. In between Natsuko’s narration, we’re gifted with glimpses into Midoriko’s inner turmoil through her journal entries. Under Midoriko’s angst and often flippant words are confusion and a deep abiding pain over the hormonal changes in her body.
“Where does that come from, though? Does blood coming out of your body make you a woman? A potential mother? What makes that so great anyway? Does anyone really believe that?”
Kawakami does an excellent job at portraying the tensions between mother and daughter. Midoriko doesn’t want her body to change, while Makiko is willingly seeking to change her body; this contrast culminates in an explosive, heart-wrenching confrontation towards the end of their visit as Natsuko bears witness to both mother and daughter reaching their breaking points.
“So you want your body to be the way it used to be? Then why’d you even have me? Your life would have been better if you never had me. Think about how great everything would be if none of us were ever born. No happiness, no sadness.”
Book Two is much longer, meandering along at a slower pace, but still just as provocative as Book One. Despite having a successful book, Natsuko, now thirty-eight years old, still struggles with writing and her identity as a woman. She is now nursing a desire for a child, but realizes that the traditional methods hold little appeal for her. She starts doing research into infertility treatment and donor conception. The people she meets during this journey — single mothers, a sperm donor, children of donor conception — present Natsuko and the reader with some hard philosophical questions about birth, family, and society as a whole.
“What made me want to know this person? What did I think it meant to have a kid, or for this kid to have me as a mother? Who, or what, exactly, was I expecting? I knew I wasn’t making any sense, but I was doing all I could to string the words together and convey that meeting this person, whoever they may wind up being, was absolutely crucial to me.”
There’s nothing glamorous about the Japan Kawakami presents us with: this is a story that doesn’t shy away from exploring the failures and double standards in Japanese society. Kawakami effortlessly covers so much terrain in this book, delving into themes including, but not limited to, femininity, menstruation, sexual pleasure, child rearing, infertility, poverty, loneliness, writing, and more. At times, it felt like she was covering too much ground, and I was running as fast as I could trying to catch up. This wasn’t a book I could read for an hour or two at a time; I had to set it aside and come back to it a day or so later.
My only gripe with Breasts and Eggs has to do with the long sections of dialogue, which sometimes felt too contrived. Reading through them became more of a chore than a pleasure. I can’t say whether this is due to the translation or Kawakami’s writing style, since this is the first work of hers I’ve read. It did force me to slow down, which has its benefits, especially in a heavily thematic work, but it’s not a writing approach I’m fond of.
That minor gripe aside, this is an absolute powerhouse of a novel that makes a valiant attempt to understand just what it means to be a woman and a mother. If you’re going to read anything by a female Japanese author this year, make it Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs.
Pearl Rating: 🦪🦪🦪🦪
Pick up a copy of Breasts and Eggs wherever you find your books (preferably your local library or independent bookstore!).
This review also appears on my other blog at Cat and Moth Writings.