By Mieko Kawakami
Europa Editions: May 25, 2021
175 pages, $23.00
Mieko Kawakami’s 2020 novel, Breasts and Eggs, was the first novel by the young Japanese writer to be translated into English. The story of three women navigating cultural and personal challenges, it received critical acclaim, making many “best of” lists.
Only a year later, she has returned with a slim gut punch of a novel, Heaven, the story of a teenage boy with a lazy eye who is bullied relentlessly and with sadistic glee by his classmates. Kawakami’s description of the psychological and physical abuse suffered by the narrator will bring back painful memories of the bullying that most of us experienced at some time during our youth. She knows these adolescent abusers well.
But one day the protagonist finds a note in his desk from someone who wants to be friends. And thus begins his unusual friendship with Kojima, his female counterpart in the class. She is bullied for being dirty and smelly, for wearing the same frayed clothing, and for her shock of uncombed hair. Like the narrator, she is a quiet, bookish student who accepts the constant bullying without speaking up or fighting back.
Slowly and tentatively, they reach out to each other in their notes and occasional secret meetings. Their conversations are wide-ranging and full of philosophical views of their circumstances. But in class they do not speak to each other, knowing that would only lead to more creatively cruel bullying.
But is their shared experience as victims of violence and rejection enough to build a friendship on? Their relationship is eventually complicated by the narrator’s discovery that his lazy eye can be corrected through surgery. Will this stop the bullying, or will his classmates continue to terrorize him because he’s an outcast for other reasons as well? In one of the novel’s most powerful scenes, the narrator encounters one of the bullies away from school and confronts him about his cruelty. The bully’s explanation about why he and his classmates harass the narrator amounts to a shockingly amoral personal philosophy and worldview.
Heaven will leave you pondering the nature of bullies and bullying and the long-term effects of this trauma on its young victims.