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Review: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2020)

Breasts and Eggs is a spectacular and delicate exposition of what it is to be in a woman’s body when that body is eternally viewed as either a commodity, a conduit for male pleasure, or a reproductive vessel. The breasts and eggs of the title indicate difficult decisions about breast enhancement surgery and fertility for two sisters over the course of a decade, and Kawakami’s characterisation, dialogue and plot development are exquisite. English-language readers may have seen a glimpse of this in Kawakami’s previous novella, Ms Ice Sandwich, translated by Louise Heal Kawai (Pushkin Press) – I loved the beguiling awkwardness of the narrator in that novella, and Breasts and Eggs echoes this diffidence (an excruciating coffee date with a potential sperm donor is one of the squirm-in-your-seat highlights) while still offering an entirely new perspective on relationships. Bursting with the quiet tragedy of unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without means, and longing for a person never met, this is a novel that both reflects on the life of ordinary people and thrums with their expectations and disappointments.

We meet narrator Natsuko one sticky summer, when her older sister Makiko is visiting Natsu in Tokyo with her adolescent daughter Midoriko in tow. Midoriko has taken a vow of silence where her mother and aunt are concerned, corresponding with them only via a notebook (and even then, in the most taciturn of epistolary communication). Makiko’s visit is not purely social: she has spent months researching the best way to have breast enhancement surgery, which she believes is the key to a more successful life. Makiko works as a hostess at a bar in the sisters’ hometown of Osaka, and is painfully aware that her advancing years mean that she is no longer at the top of this already fairly inglorious game. Makiko’s obsession with her breasts is desperate: she has already dedicated herself to painful, expensive and time-consuming methods of bleaching her nipples to make them pinker, indicating not only the idealised traps of gender, but also those of western culture.

We get to know Midoriko through Natsu’s observations of her niece, but also through snippets of her journal, which are presented to us out of time until the point that Natsu gives in and reads Midoriko’s journal. With Natsu, Makiko and Midoriko unable to find ways to connect to one another, the climax of their silent stand-off is perfect in its breaking of silence, hearts (and eggs), jagged words painfully egested so that we see the private pain that both Midoriko and Makiko share in isolation, each until now unable to understand the other. It is in scenes such as this one that the translators Sam Bett and David Boyd excel, communicating profound emotion with few words. The entire novel is understated, recounting significant personal upheaval and tragedy without ever descending into melodrama, and Bett and Boyd render this very well in a prose that strikes a deft balance between lyrical and contained.

Natsuko allows us insights into her childhood, raised by her mother and grandmother in near-poverty. Makiko’s greatest hope for her own financial security is her hostessing job, and Natsuko is an aspiring writer – a precarious position in a male-dominated industry, but one which introduces us to some fabulous supporting characters in literary agent Sengawa and radical writer Rika. The insights into Natsu’s circumstances offer an excellent view of creative life, showing a writer who does not have the luxury of time or the privilege of space in which to write; equally, they offer fresh perspectives on being a single woman in a world where others loudly and ostentatiously define themselves by their relationships.

Breasts and Eggs is also about bodies – Makiko’s ageing body, and her belief that by having it surgically enhanced her life will be better; Natsuko’s body, devoid of sexual contact by choice, and her deeply internalised need to have a child. It is about relationships, but not conventional ones, and indeed the narrative seems set on resisting all expectation and stereotype. It resolutely refuses to fall into tropes of defining what working-class womanhood “is” (though, as we see in one gloriously sardonic scene, it is definitely not about eating in trendy galette restaurants) – rather, it’s about everyday dreams and extraordinary bonds. Above all, Breasts and Eggs is a story of quiet tragedies: unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without great means, the people we lose (whether through death or by growing up and apart) and the longing for a person never met – whether an anonymous parent or an unconceived child. It is ambitious in scope and beautiful in expression, and quite simply one of my favourite books so far this year.

Review copy of Breasts and Eggs provided by Picador Books