Heaven by Mieko Kawakami
Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett & David Boyd
Published by Picador, 2021
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In her latest novel to be translated into English, Kawakami looks at the impact of flippant cruelty, and the cost of a connection forged in the shadow of violence. We follow a 14-year-old boy, ostracised from his class and the subject of constant bullying because of his lazy eye. As the level of torment escalates, he strikes up an unconventional though deeply meaningful friendship with Kojima, a girl from his class who suffers similar ridicule for being “dirty” and poor.
The prose itself is largely economical, but this works to reflect both the youth and the suppressed emotion of our protagonists. Despite some truly harrowing scenes, Kawakami skilfully maintains an air of gentle melancholy, as though the characters themselves are in a daze, resigned to their fate. This chimes nicely with the book’s discussion of the extent to which we are in control of our own lives, and the extent to which we are mere passengers.
On that front, the book’s core message seems to be one of resilience and autonomy; the idea that we should only ever seek to change on our own terms, and never to conform or appease others. Without dipping into spoilers, I would say this thread becomes a little muddied towards the end, and some additional closure for a particular character would have helped hit home Kawakami’s point with greater assurance.
The novel was first published in its original Japanese form back in 2009, and with regard to some clumsy presentation of gender and bodily difference, I would argue it shows its age. The dialogue, too, becomes convoluted at times, the reach for philosophical musings jarring with the otherwise sensitive portrayal of the book’s teen characters.
Still, I found this a very worthwhile look at loneliness and othering that confirms Kawakami is an author I’m intrigued to keep following. I don’t doubt several of its most quietly haunting moments will stick me.