In brief: Natsuko and her sister didn’t have it easy growing up. Now she’s a writer in Tokyo and Makiko is a single mother who wants breast implants. Fast forward ten years and Natsuko has some equally difficult decisions to make about life…
The good: More light hearted at times than other Japanese fiction I’ve read.
The not-so-good: Natsuko occasionally goes off on Murakami-esque tangents.
Why I chose it: I love Japanese fiction. Thanks to Pan Macmillan for the copy.
Translator: Sam Bett and David Boyd from the Japanese
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
I have a fascination with Japanese fiction. It comes from learning the language and standing in the biggest bookstore I’ve ever seen, which happened to be in Japan. (Knowing that I’d struggle to read past the picture books was a sobering moment). The next best thing is reading in translation. Breasts and Eggs brings a new author to me in Mieko Kawakami and a new style, fiction about women in Japan. I haven’t read too much of the latter from the female perspective.
Breasts and Eggs is divided into two parts. In the first book, we meet Natsuko, her sister Makiko and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko. Natsuko and Makiko come from a very poor family in Osaka where their mother and grandmother struggled to make ends meet. Both the daughters ended up working in bars and as hostesses to supplement the family income. Now, Natsuko is a struggling writer in Tokyo and Makiko is a single mother, continuing her hostess work. One summer, Makiko and Midoriko come to Tokyo. Makiko has been researching breast implants and wants to look at some clinics. Midoriko has stopped talking, communicating only through a notebook. Her private thoughts about growing up are written in a diary. Then, everything blows up… Book Two begins ten years later and focuses on Natsuko, now a successful author writing a book that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. She has some choices to make about her single, childless state and asks friends and Makiko as she thinks about what she wants from the future.
As you may have guessed from the title, much of Breasts and Eggs is about women and their bodies. Midoriko is struggling with the idea of growing up and the functions of her body. Makiko is dissatisfied with her breasts. Natsuko considers the options available to her to get pregnant, researching and asking friends. The opinions she receives are varied, with one character having an almost violent opposition to bringing children into the world. It’s perhaps the most unguarded, spontaneous moment of the novel, made all the more raw by the character’s own past. The story brings up a lot of questions regarding the ethics and consequences of anonymous sperm donor insemination, mixed in with the official Japanese policy on them. It’s an interesting contrast to that from other countries, as are the Japanese societal attitudes.
What I enjoyed about Breasts and Eggs was that it puts Japanese women as the focus of the novel, without hiding aspects of their persona behind manners and societal norms. It’s blunt and offers no apology for the characters’ actions. There are some parts in Book One where Natsuko’s mind wanders off into Murakami-esque visualisations that didn’t do a lot for me. Book Two refrains from doing this and is much more direct in the way it tells the story, but Natsuko’s journey is slower and more meandering as she weighs up her options. Some parts feel overlong, while other events speed by. Overall, it’s something new in the world of Japanese fiction and I’ve already marked when Kawakami’s next English translation is released.