Thursday, October 07, 2021

Heaven - Mieko Kawakami


Mieko Kawakami’s 2009 novel Heaven has now been translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd and has been published in a Europa edition. It follows the success Kawakami enjoyed last year when her novel Breasts and Eggs became the first of her books to be published in English. 


Because of its heartbreaking plot, Heaven is not an easy novel to read. It tells the story of two middle school students, one male and one female,  who are so tormented and abused by their classmates that their lives are no longer their own. Everything that happens to the two of them is recounted by the unnamed boy who is being so badly bullied. He is the target of a small group of boys led by class favorite Ninomiya, a handsome, charismatic, but extremely cruel young man. Another gang member, a boy called Momose, is always around when our narrator is being bullied, but never gets his own hands dirty, preferring simply to stare from the outskirts of the action with a blank look on his face and his arms crossed. 


“Without school, I could get by without seeing anyone or being seen by anyone. It was like being a piece of furniture in a room that nobody uses. I can’t express how safe it felt never being seen. I knew the peace could never last, but it was immensely comforting to know that, if I never left my room, no one in the world could lay a finger on me. The flip side was I had no way of engaging with the world, but that was how it had to be.” - Narrator 


Kojima, a girl who comes to school everyday unwashed and having taken no care at all to her personal appearance, suffers a similar fate from a gang of girls who delight in tormenting her both emotionally and physically. She and the boy, despite their common suffering, have never acknowledged each other in the classroom, much less spoken about what is happening to them. Then one day, Kojima leaves an unsigned note hidden in the boy’s pencil case saying, “We should be friends.” The boy is almost certain that this is just another trick and that he is being set up for a new embarrassment at the hands of his bullies, but the notes keep coming and his curiosity keeps growing. Finally, more desperate for a friend than he knows, the boy agrees to meet the note-writer in the stairwell after school. And he and Kojima become each other’s only friend.


For the rest of the school year, through the summer, and into the new school year, the boy with the lazy eye and the “dirty” girl exchange letters and notes, and even meet occasionally to share their lives. They are still mercilessly bullied by their peers, but their lives are a little better for the friendship they share. But, of course, that will not be tolerated by either set of bullies when they finally figure out that Kojima and the boy have become friends behind their backs.


Bottom Line: Heaven is a disturbing novel that shines a spotlight on bullies and their victims. Kojima and the boy justify to themselves their own passiveness to everything they suffer, but the bullies sense their unwillingness to defend themselves and continue to escalate their cruelty. That is hard to watch, and I kept wondering where the adults were while all this was happening — realizing of course, that this kind of silent suffering at the hands of peers often goes unnoticed by parents and teachers until it is too late to do anything about it. This is a coming-of-age novel from Hell, and Hell would have, perhaps, been a more suitable title for this one than Heaven (the title has a specific meaning to the boy and the girl).


Mieko Kawakami


12 comments:

  1. This one does sound disturbing and very hard to read. Kids can be so mean to one another. And for the ones being tormented life can be pure hell. I think I'd have to be in a very good place mentally and emotionally to be able to read this one. But it does sound like one for my TBR list.

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    1. I sincerely believe that anyone who has ever been bullied NEVER forgets it, and that they are forever changed by the horrible experience. That's what makes books like this one so hard to read.

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  2. I liked this one a lot even though it was hard to read. I'll try the Breast and Eggs at some point as well.

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    1. Thanks to you for bringing this one to my attention. I can't say that I actually enjoyed it, but it is a good reminder of the world our children are living in every day.

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  3. It's an important story, but I don't think I'll be reading it anytime soon. Kudos to you for soldiering through and giving us this review.

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    1. A couple of my grandsons experienced some school bullying, so this kind of thing is always hard for me to read. I'm glad I did, though, because I do think it's an important story in so many ways.

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  4. I don't think I can read this. In this age of public bullies, not just the ones who don't expect anyone to tell of the abuse, it is a little too close for comfort.

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    1. The stories I've heard and read about bullying are very disturbing, to say the least, Jen. I sometimes don't want to admit to myself how little humans have really evolved over the ages. We are not much closer to being civilized than we were at the beginning.

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  5. Thanks for your review, Sam. It's an important book that many people should read, but I am not one of them. I had my own personal experience being bullied as a child. I was one of the lucky ones who got fed up with it, stood up to them, and at least got them to leave me completely alone. My heart bleeds for those who couldn't/can't.

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    1. I had a similar experience with a school bully, Cathy, and like you finally got fed up with the guy and confronted him in public one day. It did really affect him much personally since he terrorized the whole school, but he ignored me for the next several years, so there was that. Last I heard of him he had recently lost an eye during a bar fight in Saigon during the war. I imagine he's long dead now...or locked up somewhere.

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  6. This does sound like a very hard book to read.

    I read another book by a Japanese author that touches on bullying in high school (Malice by Keigo Higashino) and it showed just how bad bullying can be.

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    1. Over the last few years, I've learned a lot about Japanese society via their fiction authors, Tracy. Not all positive as it turns out, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that they have the same problems that we have with this kind of thing. It's just not the image of Japanese culture that I used to have...was very naive.

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