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Breasts and Eggs
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B+ : somewhat rambling, but works overall
See our review for fuller assessment.
[*: review of the 2008 novella, 'Breasts and Eggs']
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Note: Kawakami Mieko's 乳と卵 ('Breasts and Eggs') was a novella that won the 2007 (II) Akutagawa Prize; more than a decade later, she revised and expanded (considerably) on it, a version that was then published in 2019 as 夏物語 ('Summer Stories'); the English-language editions of the latter have now, somewhat confusingly, been published under the former title (while the original 'Breasts and Eggs' was never published in (English) translation). It is this that is now under review here .....Breasts and Eggs is a two-part novel, with book one -- essentially the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel 'Breasts and Eggs', published in 2008 -- set on a few hot summer days in 2008 and book two beginning eight years later, in 2016. Both are narrated by Natsuko Natsume, who came from very poor circumstances in Osaka, and moved to Tokyo to become a writer when she was twenty. (Several people assume the catchy if unlikely 'Natsuko Natsume' is the pen name she adopted, but, as she assures them, it really is her name.)
The first section of the novel, set in 2008, revolves around a rare visit by her considerably (almost a decade) older sister, Makiko, and Makiko's daughter, Midoriko, to Tokyo. They still live in Osaka, where Makiko works at a bar called Chanel. Natsuko and Makiko's mother died when Natsuko was still young, with the grandmother they had gone to live with then also dying when Natsuko was only in her teens, leaving Makiko -- then twenty-four -- to support them, with Natsuko pitching in by taking on jobs as soon as she could convincingly lie about her age.
Poverty, and the cycle of poverty, are a significant theme especially in this first part of the novel. The two sisters' mother and grandmother struggled -- with the father fairly good-for-nothing, for as long as he was part of the family -- and after they died the two girls had difficulties getting by. Makiko married young but split up from her husband before Midoriko was even born, raising her as a single parent. With her limited schooling and without any real skills, Makiko remains stuck in a job with few real prospects; on top of that, the bar she works at isn't doing particularly well (but it's still around, and Makiko is still working there, eight years later, in the second part of the novel). Natsuko escaped to Tokyo but, a decade on, still struggles to make ends meet -- she's a few months behind on her rent at the moment, for example, something that has repeatedly happened to her. And even Midoriko -- not even a teen yet -- understands how hard her mother has it, and struggles with her own inability to be a support beyond her years:
I want to start working, so I can help. I want to help so bad. With money, with everything.The ostensible reason for Makiko's visit to Tokyo is because she is considering getting breast implants. For several months she had been obsessing about it, and she arrives in Tokyo with various glossy brochures and telling her sister about the various different options. The cost of the procedure -- practically any of the procedures (there are a lot of options) -- would seem to put all this far out of reach, but Makiko is determined to explore the possibilities.
Breasts and Eggs -- and especially this first part -- is very (female-)body focused. Makiko is dissatisfied with how her breasts look -- and not just their flatness -- while Midoriko is just hitting puberty and is having difficulties with the physical changes she is undergoing: she's not thrilled about the budding of her breasts, and anxious about the onset of her period, which she hasn't yet had, but many of her classmates have. Natsuko doesn't express these concerns as much -- she is more indifferent to her physicality -- but it's more like she just moved past it; she recalls similar concerns when she was Midoriko's age -- "I remember what it felt like when my breasts started getting bigger. How out of nowhere I had grown these things" -- but that only went so far:
My monolithic expectation of what a woman's body was supposed to look like had no bearing on what actually happened to my body. The two things were wholly unrelated. I never became the woman I imagined.This question -- of how to define womanhood, and how to live up to it (as society forces a specific version and picture of it on women) -- is one all three of them are dealing with, in very different ways. Midoriko puts it most bluntly -- "It feels like I am trapped inside my body" -- but it's what all three of them are dealing with.
An added twist to the story is that Midoriko has stopped talking to her mother, for over half a year already. She refuses to say a word to her -- which now also goes for aunt Natsuko, when she is in Tokyo (though she continues to speak with her friends and teachers at school). She does communicate with her mother and aunt, in writing -- in fact, she has two notebooks: a smaller one ("for answering people"), and a larger one that is a journal that she keeps. Interspersed with Natsuko's narrative in this first part of the novel are excerpts from this journal, which Natsuko comes to read, giving more insight into what is going on in Midoriko's head -- a lot of which has to do with what is going on with her body.
Natsuko is naturally drawn to writing: she has many books, and she is trying to become a writer. Indeed:
Writing makes me happy. But it goes beyond that. Writing is my life's work. I am absolutely positive that this is what I'm here to do. Even if it turns out that I don't have the ability, and no one out there wants to read a single word of it, there's nothing I can do about this feeling. I can't make it go away.If for Midoriko her journal-writing and communicating through writing are only a temporary outlet as she struggles through her typical-(near-)teen issues, for Natsuko writing is everything; interestingly, however, there's little sense in this first part of the novel of her actually actively engaging in much literary work. Given the time frame -- the short visit -- and the two other people she is constantly interacting with here, that is understandable, but it is noticeable. Her acknowledgement of the importance of writing also reflects on yet another theme of the novel, motherhood -- whereby it is Midoriko who struggles most openly with the issue, both wondering why her mother had her and already vowing: "I've already decided. I'm never having kids. No way".
Motherhood then is the central issue in the longer second book of the novel, with Natsuko -- thirty-eight when the second part begins, a leap eight years ahead -- finding a deep-rooted urge to have a child. One problem: she has no interest in, essentially, her child having a father.
Male figures do not come off well in Breasts and Eggs; they are also notable by their absence -- fathers who are unknown or disappeared, in particular, but also generally: Natsuko has very little to do with any men throughout the novel. The fathers are, almost across the board, failures or worse. Natsuko's dad was a hopeless case, and Makiko's marriage fell apart before their child was even born. One friend of Natsuko is leaving Tokyo to join her husband in his family's home because he couldn't continue working, but she loathes the over-indulged (by his mother) father of her child; another friends sums up what seems to be the prevailing opinion: "I find all men repulsive". A rare positive figure is Jun Aizawa -- but he is also troubled, a doctor who learned late in life that his father wasn't his biological father, and that his mother had had a sperm donor. The man Aizawa always thought was his father -- long dead -- was actually also a good guy, but in Japan the biological bond still counts for a great deal, and Aizawa's life is marked by what he sees as this gaping void.
In Natsuko's case, there's another issue. When she was much younger she had a boyfriend, Naruse, whom she got along very well with, but she found that she couldn't stand sex:
It wasn't physically painful. It just made me so uneasy, and I couldn't make the feeling go away. [...] The sex was never enjoyable or comfortable or fulfilling. Once Naruse was naked on top of me, I was alone.Natsuko finds: "Passion and sex were incompatible for me. They didn't connect". She hasn't had sex since her relationship with Naruse ended, and she has no interest in trying again. She leads a relatively isolated life, occasionally meeting old co-workers (all women) or her editor (a woman), and she remains in touch with her sister and niece (but mainly via phone and text), but basically on her own.
Like in the first part of the novel, the question of, and definition (and expectations) of womanhood are at the fore, with Natsuko admitting her confusion:
That's why sometimes I have to ask myself: Am I really a woman ? Like I said, I have the body of a woman. I know that. But do I have the mind of a woman ? Do I feel like a woman ? I can't say either way with any confidence.Natsuko's isn't a question of gender-confusion -- that isn't the issue -- but she still struggles to figure out her identity as a woman, whereby societal pressure, of lineage, and the roles of sons and daughters within the family, play a significant part. Natsuko does come to figure out that she wants to be a mother, and she has no shortage of role-models showing her that being a single mother is something that can be done, but she still approaches the possibility very cautiously.
The second part of Breasts and Eggs is then largely about Natsuko considering having a child, and how to do so without involving a man too directly -- certainly avoiding actual sex, but she isn't too keen on any sort of personal connection regarding the whole thing. This is considerably complicated by Japanese attitudes -- and laws -- regarding artificial insemination, which is basically limited to (heterosexual) married couples. Natsuko explores a number of the possible work-arounds, but none of them are particularly easy or appealing (and some downright off-putting, like the overhelpful volunteer she encounters ...). It's in looking into the subject that she befriends Aizawa -- whose own history however suggests some of the damage that might result when a child does not know the identity of their biological father.
In the eight years separating the first and second parts of the novel Natsuko has enjoyed some success as an author, publishing a book that became a surprise success (where everyone dies -- but keeps on living ...). She has a couple of ongoing gigs -- a column for a women's magazine, a regular webzine contribution -- and the occasional other piece means that she is: "at a point where I could make a living from my writing". She's also saved enough that she could raise a child, so at least financially it wouldn't be crushing hardship (as it was for her mother). And she isn't really that worried about money, recalling that the female companionship of the three generations she grew up as part of and the sense of family were what really mattered:
We had no money. We had nothing. But we had each other. We had our words, and all the feelings that we never even thought of putting into words.During this period covered in the second part of the novel Natsuko is struggling with her latest project, a novel that just won't come together. Her editor thinks she should get her priorities straight and forget about this motherhood idea: "You've got bigger fish to fry". Her editor believes in her -- but only as a writer:
You've got what it takes to be a great novelist. Don't squander your gift. Everyone goes through times when they can't write. The important thing is that you keep on going. If you want to write, you have to make it your whole life.Natsuko is obviously torn a bit, and concerned that having a child might pull her away from her writing, but admirably Kawakami doesn't put that at the fore: Natsuko never really frames it as an either/or proposition -- nor does she go into this with any certainty that she can balance the two. She's trying to find herself -- who she is, as a woman and in general -- and most of Breasts and Eggs has her trying to figure that out. Realistically, Kawakami doesn't offer any easy answers for her.
The Japan-specific details, especially about family (and family-lines), and the way both the law and society look upon procreation give an interesting twist to the story; in this sense, it is definitely a foreign tale, as American or European experiences would be shaped very differently simply because of the way society and the law function there. The issue of womanhood is more universal, and Kawakami's take is particularly intriguing with her de-sexualized protagonist. Natsuko doesn't come across as a neutered (or psychologically damaged) character -- though here again the story is clearly 'foreign', as it seems unimaginable her American or European counterpart would not at some point, of her own accord or encouraged by others, have consulted a therapist about her aversion to sex. Most of the women she deals with -- notably her sister and, in the second part, near-grown niece -- seem reasonably comfortable in their skin, figuring out how they want to live (though some of her friends do make tough compromises).
The treatment of male figures is a bit more complicated, as Kawakami, like Natsuko, isn't all too sure of what to do with them, unable to find much that they're good for; mostly, they're simply non-presences -- though there's some harsh male-bashing slipped in along the way:
They can't do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can't take care of anyone else. They can't even take care of themselves. They won't do anything for their kids or families if it means sacrificing their own comfort, but they go out in the world and act all big, like I'm such a good dad, such a provider. Idiots.Breasts and Eggs meanders some, Natsuko rambling especially in the more extended second part (which also covers a considerably longer period), but she leads down intriguing paths (or, mostly, detours). There's a bit of an over-reliance on drunk scenes, and some of the discussions about getting pregnant without a partner bog down a bit, but overall Breasts and Eggs is quite consistently engaging. The first and the second parts do have a slightly different feel -- the first a sort of separate whole, which isn't fully tied together with the second (those eight years are a hell of a leap, all of a sudden) -- but the differences aren't too jarring. The translation is mostly solid, though there are occasional ... unusual choices (most notably: tchotchke, which surely has no place in any Japanese novel not set in a Jewish milieu).
Both the US and UK editions of Breasts and Eggs come with a cover-blurb by Murakami Haruki -- and there's a recent (not yet translated) book subtitled: 'Haruki Murakami: A Long, Long Interview by Mieko Kawakami'; see the Shinchosha publicity page -- and honestly, it's no surprise that they're fans of each others' work; sure, as far as characters and subject-matter-details go, Breasts and Eggs is far from Murakami, but in every other respect, especially the writing and presentation, it feels very Murakamiesque. (True, no cats -- but there is a bizarre weasel episode.)
Breasts and Eggs is an odd work, in many respects, but mostly quite winning; it's maybe a bit much Kawakami stuffs in here, but it comes together quite satisfyingly. Certainly, the quirkiness of the presentation of the ideas -- mainly in the normalcy with which they are treated (Natsuko isn't really hung-up on anything, like most protagonists in her position would be, especially regarding sex) -- is appealing.
A Murakami-like bit of dialogue near the end sums up all that came before pretty well:
"It's weird, isn't it ?" Yuriko said.But weird in a good way.
- M.A.Orthofer, 6 April 2020
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Japanese author Kawakami Mieko (川上未映子) was born in 1976.
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