Monthly Archives: June 2021

Review: HEAVEN by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2021)

Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (also translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd and released in the UK by Picador Books) was one of my favourite releases of 2020; prior to that I had loved the offbeat humour of her novella Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2017), and so a new Kawakami was guaranteed to be an exciting event for me.

Heaven was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it does not disappoint. It is a spare yet complex portrayal of teenage bullying, told from the perspective of a an unnamed male narrator with a lazy eye who is subjected to horrific physical and psychological torment from a group of boys in his class. He begins to receive anonymous notes slipped inside his pencil case or taped to the lid of his desk, the first one simply reading “we should be friends” (as a particularly nice touch, Picador sent out with the review copies pencils with this motto engraved on them). Curious and a little nervous, eventually the narrator agrees to meet up with the author of the notes, and from this strikes up a friendship with Kojima, a girl who is also bullied at school, and in whom he finds a kindred spirit, a friend in need, and someone who finally understands both what he suffers and why he does not fight back.

In addition to the wonderfully written relationship that develops between the narrator and Kojima, there are plenty of other aspects to the characters’ lives (an impressive amount, actually, given how slim this novel is). The narrator lives with his (absent) father and his stepmother, who is more of a parent to him than his father seems capable of or interested in being; Kojima also has an interesting and non-standard family story, and with both teenagers there is a subtle analysis of how we become who we are, and how events, circumstances and afflictions shape us.

Kawakami does not shy away from the cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and nor does she offer any crass kind of redemption in which the bullies realise the error of their ways. If anything, the only kind of resolution that we get about Ninomiya and his gang is that they are cruel for the sake of being cruel, and that no amount of attempts to make them realise the consequences of their actions is going to make them suddenly develop the empathy they lack. Apart from two notable scenes, we don’t see the bullies outside the school environment – they don’t need to be multifaceted characters with problematic lives of their own, because we see this story through the eyes of the bullied child, and to him they are simply the perpetrators of his daily misery. He has one attempt at a reckoning with one of the ringleaders when he bumps into him in a different location, but his efforts to make the bully aware of the effects of his actions are met with indifference. And the second time that the bullies enter the fray outside of the school setting is the almost-final scene, the apex of their crusade of humiliation, in which the narrator will be stripped of everything he cared about.

The teachers all seem entirely unaware of (and unwilling to notice) the drama that is played out in the schoolroom each day: this is a daily nightmare from which the narrator has no escape. His desperate private wishes that Ninomiya might not notice him, or might forget him, are heartbreaking (“I was crying because we had nowhere else to go, no choice but to go on living in this world”): this boy wants to be invisible, to blend into the background, and yet both his physical defect and the way in which he has been singled out as a target make this impossible.

There are scenes in Heaven that made me wince, and feel a terror at the simple fact that such deliberate humiliation can and does happen: the callous brutality of the teenage bullies is something that Kawakami excels at portraying. Even more impressive, though, is the way in which she communicates the reactions of the bullied child. It must be incredibly hard to write from the perspective of an adolescent without conferring on the character the wisdom and experience the adult author has gained, and Kawakami manages this superbly. There is something very real about the depth and intensity of their thinking process and their attempts to articulate what is happening to them, and the co-translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd is believably adolescent but never in the cringe-worthy manner of how an adult thinks a teenage boy would speak.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Heaven is how different it is from Breasts and Eggs, and how versatile Kawakami is as a writer. There are recognisable traits, such as the focus on characters who don’t fit into standard expectations of “normality”, and the ability to convey so much detail in relatively few words, but the situation and plot are entirely new (which, however much I might love what an author has done before, is always a good thing in my view). Similarly, Bett and Boyd translate in a way that communicates the stylistic similarities or idiosyncrasies, but without producing a “flat-pack” translation, showing their understanding of and attention to what makes this book both recognisable and unique (including the particularly beautiful short sentences the narrator uses to try to understand his reaction to his growing intimacy with Kojima: “She liked my eyes. The memory stood on my chest. It was good and bad at the same time”). There is also a superb translation of wordplay involving the phrase “someday best” (a term I want to adopt and use regularly); in fact, the only negative point about reading Heaven was the way the Bryan Adams power ballad with the same title would not leave my head every time I picked up the book.

In fairness, though, the earworm isn’t Kawakami’s fault. And it would be a bit mean of me to blame Bett and Boyd, especially since the title is important in more than one way.

The ending of Heaven is not at all what I was expecting (also a good thing in my opinion – I don’t like predictable narratives): it made me see certain key sections and dialogues in a new light, and left me thinking about both the narrator and Kojima well after I closed the cover. This is a truly wonderful book: discomfiting, unsettling, and entirely unique.

Review copy of Heaven provided by Picador Books

Review: SHOCKED EARTH by Saskia Goldschmidt

Translated from Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett (Saraband Books, 2021)

I’m going to go out on a limb straight away, and declare this one of my favourite books of 2021: it was one of those rare books that I kept thinking about while I wasn’t reading it, and couldn’t wait to get back to when I had some reading time. It’s an absolute cracker, and I’m excited to tell you why.

Shocked Earth is the story of a farming family in Groningen province. We meet three generations of the Koridon family: Zwier, the grandfather, a quiet and undemonstrative man who nonetheless is capable of deep affection; Trijn, his daughter, who never wanted to work on the family farm but after an ill-fated bid for freedom returned and never left; Femke, Trijn’s daughter, who wants to move into organic dairy farming but meets intransigence from her mother. After some background about Trijn’s childhood, her disastrous bid for independence via an ultimately abusive relationship with Femke’s father and her subsequent return to the family farm, the main focus is on Femke in more or less the present day. Femke wants to turn the farm into an enterprise that will “work with nature rather than against it”, while Trijn is adamant that this would be a sure path to financial ruin, and Zwier is reluctant to abandon the traditional methods that have shaped his life’s work. Femke is introverted and reserved, but when she meets Danielle, an “offcomer” who shows her what desire is, it is “as if a small animal had broken free inside her.” Needless to say, Trijn is about as enthusiastic about Femke’s romantic choice as she is about her plans for the farm, and the two women skirt around each other with shards of resentment and unarticulated reproaches constantly driving between them.

As well as the generational conflict, there is an ever-present threat in the form of quake damage caused by gas extraction: the government has realised that it can make a significant profit from gas that has been discovered beneath the clay lands, yet refuses to acknowledge – let alone compensate – the damage to lives and livelihoods caused by its actions. The Koridon family has lived in fear for five years, ever since “that evening when the joists and rafters cracked and the tea whirled in the cups, that evening when the floor tiles cracked, the ceiling lamp lashed wildly back and forth, and the pull bell moaned as if the devil himself was shaking it,” and yet the painfully slow process of trying to get official recognition of the damage they have suffered is stymied by bureaucratic red tape and administrators doggedly insisting that the farm is subsiding owing to poor maintenance. The threat of the next quake hangs over the narrative, and when it comes it’s going to turn the Koridon family’s lives upside down (more than once).

The two main threads – tension within the family and the threat of losing the farm – are delicately interwoven throughout. The family’s story is also closely connected to the land, and so to questions of ecological sustainability and damage to the earth. This is a book that is simultaneously about big issues and everyday people, and in which profound truths appear when you least expect them, whether in Zwier’s comment to Femke that “People always need to make others feel smaller. So they can look bigger” or in Goldschmidt’s observation in a particularly harrowing episode that “too much importance is placed on money and not enough on care … the individual is defeated by the system, compassion by self-interest, imagination by inflexibility, quietness by tumult, love by fear, humanity by cruelty”). And if the frustration with the administrative procedures, the inability of the Koridons to articulate their emotions when it most matters, and the disappointing behaviour of the minor characters are not enough to draw you in, you can also look forward to a Dead Bird Museum, a rebellion, and an unexpected outcome when a law is inadvertently broken. The thing that pulled me in most, though, was the heart of the story. Despite the characters’ coldness and their difficulty expressing emotions, and despite the almost unremittingly bleak landscape, Goldschmidt manages to make Shocked Earth full of warmth and feeling. It takes quite a lot for me to cry at a book – welling up isn’t so rare, but needing to put the book down because I can’t see the pages through my tears doesn’t happen often (The Eighth Life and The Little Girl on the Ice Floe are recent exceptions) – but there was one part when I wept so much my seven-year-old daughter got out of bed to check I was okay. No spoilers, so I’ll just say that it was page 266, and hope you read it for yourself.

Antoinette Fawcett’s translation is extremely accomplished – the ominous threat is delicately conveyed throughout, as is the tension in the farm, and in particular Fawcett excels at describing the sights and sounds of the countryside in all its lowering greyness (and occasional Spring promise). While at times the descriptions are poetic (“Then she pushes the barrow down the lonning. The sweet, heavy scent of May blossom and cow parsley, the magenta-coloured clover flowers and purple foxtails, the great tits twittering in the poplars, the yellow wagtails on the fields, the meadow pipits yoyoing, the swallows skimming along the ground, the crows cawing, and the soft summer breeze all pass her by”), at others reality crashes in (“The sharp stench of cow shit announces the spring”). The range of farming vocabulary is admirable (and, for this urban reader, extremely instructive) and the tone is dramatic enough to convey the immensity of both the landscape and the situation, but stops before getting mawkish (“And high above this apocalyptic scene, where a hundred and fifty years of history is being guzzled down, bite after bite after bite, a buzzard is circling, mewing, lamenting”). There are a couple of expressions I found a little odd (a dog’s tail “wagging without cease”, and the slightly awkwardly formulated question “what do you take in your coffee?”), but these were so few and so minor that they did not detract from the evocative and detailed storytelling. I also really appreciated the translator’s note at the end, which engages carefully with the importance of context to linguistic choices; Fawcett also makes an observation that strikes me as getting right to the heart of why this book is so moving: “the fate of one particular family in a remote corner of the Netherlands is absolutely linked into the fate of humanity as a whole.” I may have little in common with Zwier, Trijn and Femke, but the problems they face – personal and political – are the problems of humanity, and this book’s humanity is precisely where its power lies.

Review copy of Shocked Earth provided by Saraband Books