Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

A few weeks ago I read Mieko Kawakami’s acclaimed Breasts and Eggs and suffice to say that I was not a fan. While Heaven was clearly written by the same author of Breasts and Eggs (both novels implement similar imagery and even use the same metaphor comparing the legs of a young girl to poles) I was able to appreciate it a lot more.
In spite of its brevity Heaven is by no means an easy-going story, in fact, it often verges on being Misery Porn™: large chunks of the narrative depict in minute detail the bullying our fourteen-year-old protagonist is subjected to. The novel raises some interesting questions about bullying and nonconformity. Why do some become perpetrators while others are victims? Should our main character respond to the deluge of abuse he receives from his classmates? Why do the other boys in the class torment him? Is it because of his appearance?
While quite a few of the discussions between the teenage characters did not come across as all that convincing (they expressed themselves in a way that seemed far older or that suggested a worldliness that went at odds with their experiences so far) I still found myself engaged in the narrative.
There are a lot of scenes that verge on being gratuitous: we get painfully detailed descriptions of our MC being beaten, humiliated, and harassed. His friendship with Kojima, a classmate who is bullied by the female students, provided some welcome respite from the sections relating the bullying. The two bond quickly, and in spite of their attempts not to discuss school and the way they are treated by other students, they do eventually confined in one another. Kojima’s view of the whole bullying ‘thing’ while by no means healthy enables her to make ‘sense’ of her circumstances.
As with Breasts and Eggs we have characters giving seemingly endless monologues that last pages at the time. While I did not mind learning more about Kojima, her home life, and her peculiar philosophy, I did not care one bit about Momose’s spiel towards the end of the novel. The narrative seemed intent on making him seem mysterious and mature but I thought him shallow. He did not really come across as a credible fourteen-year-old, more like a parody of the worldly teen who already speaks so many truths about the world (puh-lease). Our main character does a lot of navel-gazing but unlike in Breasts and Eggs, here it seemed fitting. He is young and going through a lot so it seemed natural for him to try and make sense of what was happening to him.
The ending was slightly disappointing and I probably would have given this a higher rating if I hadn’t been for that predictable ‘show-down’. I would not necessarily recommend this to those who have a low threshold for narratives depicting bullying (extensively and graphicly). Thanks to a manga series by Keiko Suenobu called Life which kind of traumatised me when I first read it around the age of 12 I am somewhat inoculated against this kind of stuff. While Heaven was by no means a breezy or perfectly executed read I did find it to be poignant and for the most part realistic. If anything it has elevated Kawakami in my eyes.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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