In brief: Eyes is being bullied at school because of his lazy eyes. Kojima is also being bullied, so when she suggests that they become friends, it sounds like a good idea.
The good: Kawakami manages to convey so much through just a sentence or two.
The not-so-good: The bullying is brutally described.
Why I chose it: Love Japanese novels and enjoyed Breasts and Eggs. Thanks to Pan Macmillan for the copy.
Year: 2021 (original Japanese edition 2009)
Translators: Sam Bett and David Boyd
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Setting: Unnamed city in Japan
Rating: 8 out of 10
Heaven is a very different story to Mieko Kawakami’s last translated novel in English, but it shows that no matter what the content, her writing is brilliant. Heaven is shorter, almost novella length, but packs a strong punch. Set in a Japanese middle school, it tells the story of brutal bullying.
Eyes (we never find out his real name) has a lazy eye and accepts the bullying that comes his way every day. It’s the only way for him to endure the verbal and physical attacks at the hands of the most popular boys in his class. Outside of class, he sticks to his own company at home with an absent father and a well-meaning stepmother. Then he starts receiving notes suggesting friendship with an anonymous person. Eyes isn’t stupid and ignores them at first. But it turns out to be Kojima, who is bullied by other girls (and sometimes the same bullies as Eyes). They strike up a friendship in secret, writing notes to each other and meeting up in secret places. It’s an odd sort of friendship as Kojima is fiercely proud in what makes her a target for the bullies and encourages Eyes to do the same. It’s only when Eyes is physically attacked and needs hospital treatment that he realises that he could have his eye fixed. But Kojima is adamant that his lazy eye is what makes him special. Who is wrong and who is right? In an eerily graphic showdown, the bullied and the bullies meet and everything falls into place – but is it the right one?
One of the great things about Japanese fiction is its mysteriousness, and Heaven has it in spades. Although we know why Kojima and one of the bullies, Momose act the way they do, it’s up to the reader to make their own decisions as to other people’s actions. The leader of the bullies, Ninomiya, is seen to have it all (looks, athleticism and intelligence) but insists on making Eyes’ life hell. Likewise, we never find out all the details of Eyes’ family or what Kojima’s mother thinks of her deliberately not washing for weeks. The descriptions of the abuse suffered by Eyes and Kojima are graphic at times, and painful to see on the page. Kojima’s increased fervour to be different in the face of the bullies just as Eyes finds out he could be like everyone else shows the different trajectories of the response to the bullying – loss and hope. Kawakami manages to pack a lot of emotion and details into this relatively short novel, from despair to cautious optimism. The writing is pitch perfect, with just the right amount of distance between reader and narrator. The story is unsettling, but Kawakami’s prose makes it bearable.
I don’t think I would be able to read this book. I absolutely detest bullying. Unfortunately I saw a fair bit of it before I retired. I sincerely hope that society is able to do something about it.