Like many of you who are joining in with Women in Translation Month, I am keen to read Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. Before doing that, I decided to first dip my toe into her world with the novella Ms Ice Sandwich: available from Pushkin Press and translated by Louise Heal Kawai.
The hero of the story, who remains unnamed, is bewitched by Ms Ice Sandwich as she works on the sandwich counter at the local supermarket. He is dazzled by her electric blue eyeshadow and the way she slips the sandwiches into the bag just so. Ms Ice Sandwich is a coming of age tale, of a boy finding his place in the world, figuring out how everything works and how other people click, even when nothing around him seems as logical as memorising the number of steps it takes to reach important places. He is a fourth grader, so about 10 years old, and Kawakami has captured his voice, his obsessions and the frustrations of being caught between little kid and teenager perfectly:
I can’t believe whoever made that schedule: they know nothing about kids and how they feel through the day, what were they thinking, putting things in that order? I suppose it’s made by teachers to suit the teachers, but I have to admit, although I have the perfect schedule in my head, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist anywhere on this earth, so I know there’s no point in blaming everything on Tuesday…
Life is as mystifying as this school schedule: his mother’s work is impenetrable – something to do with fortune telling, he thinks – his father died when he was much younger, his grandmother is bedridden and the comforts of childhood and being small, such as fairy-tales and being read to, now seem a long time ago. Although he could be a target for bullies and while the ‘dance girls’ terrify him with how cool and stuck up they are, he largely floats by unnoticed. He does have a couple of kind of friends, Doo-Wop and Tutti, and the reasons behind their nicknames will delight fans of kid-humour.
It’s not explicitly stated whether the narrator is neurodivergent or not, but he definitely has his own way of going about things, liking ‘total precision’ in his artwork and in walking, taking the time to see and notice the world around him in ways that adults sadly don’t always have time or the inclination to.
People always forget about these little things, but I believe that each one stays somewhere deep in everyone’s heart, and without noticing it they grow and harden, until one day they cause something terrible to happen. And as I’m thinking about this, I get depressed, and now all these things that I thought I’d done such a good job of drawing begin to fade and grow dull – even though I haven’t even started painting them yet.
Ms Ice Sandwich is a book where it is probably better not to know too much about the plot, especially as it is so short, but it is a joy to spend time with the narrator and Tutti – who has her own unique skill – and see life from their perspectives. If you enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time or Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, you will be as charmed and engrossed as I was with this first read – definitely not my last – from Mieko Kawakami.
The translation from Louise Heal Kawai is wonderful. The voices of the two children are fresh and sparkling, with their humour, in-jokes and nicknames intact, which must have been some feat (so don’t miss this ‘meet the translator’ interview with her from Books and Bao!)
I read Ms Ice Sandwich for Women in Translation Month and as part of 20 Books of Summer ’20 – how is your summer reading going and have you enjoyed any translated works by women this month? Let me know in the comments below.
Mieko Kawakami in 2014, giving a lecture in Tokyo by Miwakon / CC BY-SA
Book cover photo from Pushkin Press