Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai
Published by Pushkin Press, 2017
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
The charm and immense readability of this slim novella hide a deceptive amount of emotional maturity. We follow a young boy who becomes infatuated with the enigmatic woman who works behind a supermarket sandwich counter, returning to study her nearly every day. That is, until more pressing issues start getting in the way, like his beloved grandmother’s advancing illness and his tentative new friendship with a girl at school.
I really liked the way Kawakami played with expectations regarding the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope that is so prevalent when presenting Japanese women in fiction. Our narrator’s fixation with so-called Ms Ice Sandwich’s huge eyes, electric blue eyeshadow, and mysterious nature all play up to this stereotype initially, but her independent spirit and pointed refusal to appease those around her grant her a dynamism and autonomy rarely afforded to characters like her. She may hover on the periphery for the majority of the book, but her influence and subtly handled arc manage to satisfy, nonetheless.
It’s also incredibly interesting to watch the way our narrator’s attitude towards Ms Ice Sandwich changes the moment he hears other people speaking ill of her. On this front, Kawakami does a fantastic job of capturing the precarious point of adolescence when life forces us to grow up and find our own voice, however reluctantly. Indeed, there’s a youthful naivety to the narration that makes our hero very believable, and which adds real pathos to a couple of the story’s more poignant moments.
It’s a quick read, so I don’t want to go into any more detail regarding the plot, but with touching, clever commentary in here on being true to yourself, finding your people, overcoming peer pressure, and learning to say goodbye, it’s safe to say I was heartily impressed by the sheer depth Kawakami managed to pack into so few words.