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Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs review - a book of two halves | reviews, news & interviews

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs review - a book of two halves

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs review - a book of two halves

Claustrophobia, queasiness, and self-discovery in the female body

Mieko Kawakami© Pan Macmillan

Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs is a true novel of two halves and is (excuse the pun) a bit of a curate’s egg. Kawakami’s bio at the beginning of the text explains that the novel was expanded from an earlier novella, made clear by a separation into books one and two. The first book centres on the visit of the narrator’s sister and niece to her house in Tokyo, and the second brings the narrator, Natsume, into the centre of a story about her desire to conceive a child at forty.

The first book is excellent, a rough-edged drama that is both hilarious and tragic, and tinged with surreality. The second is a little flat by contrast, and the juxtaposition feels forced. 

The unifying factor between the two stories is not only the narrator but also a visceral body horror. The characters who pass through the text are often queasily and claustrophobically trapped within their own physicality. Natsume’s sister, Makiko, has visited Tokyo in order to have a breast enlargement, an uncomfortable parallel with their mother, who died of breast cancer at a similar age. Makiko’s obsession with her breasts is contrasted strongly with her almost incorporeal sister and her silent daughter, whose diary entries express her discomfort with puberty and womanhood. The feeling of claustrophobia is enhanced by the repetitiveness of the text itself, with obvious and close contrasts throughout. Someone describes the Russian doll of a book that Natsume herself has written at one point in a very apt way, both as rebirth but also something more trapping: “The world changes, the language changes, but they’re the same people, with the same souls. It keeps repeating forever…””.

Breasts and Eggs by Meiko KawakamiThe body in Breasts and Eggs is almost exclusively female. Most of the narratives are told by women, and all but one of the main characters is female. In the first half of the text, men are only there to be run away from, and in the second half, men only seem to exist as a means by which to provide sperm, but in an almost exclusively non-sexual context. When sex comes into it, it is almost horrific. It is a focus which gives the book as a whole its strength, allowing women to talk amongst themselves, navigating the policing of the female body by men and society as a whole in a space apart.

When a man does enter Natsume’s world, he is the source of great questioning and worry, but he also has a contingency that allows for his story to enter the narrative but not become the focus. As one of the characters points out in the wry way that characters in Breasts and Eggs often express themselves, “'how could a man and a woman ever see eye to eye? It’s structurally impossible'”. It is a woman who forces Natsume into a sort of birth, a rupture to the relative tranquillity of her adult life. They have a deep and difficult conversation about children, after which Natsume feels that “it was like my skull cracked open. Something was gnawing at my insides”. Her resulting illness is the catalyst for the events that lead to an actual experience of childbirth. A man might have been involved, but only briefly. The novel gives birth, but never loses its sense of being the story of a woman’s body. The dislocations and dissociations along the way are sometimes jarring and feel like they don’t wholly work, but the unifying factor of the female body saves a book that feels as necessary as it is at times awkward.

The characters who pass through the text are often queasily and claustrophobically trapped within their own physicality


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Why on earth the English translation would talk about temperatures in Fahrneheit? And who ever can judge, by the outside light, the time being "not yet 7 o'clock" in August in Tokyo, when it's complete daylight at 05:30?

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