I once wrote that a reader could have enough of thinking about a character’s breasts, but I will have to change my tune for this Breasts and Eggs review. If you are tired of the male gaze in Japanese fiction, Mieko Kawakami has written a book that is unashamedly for women, by a woman, full of the kind of conversations that only happen between women late in the evening as the third glass of wine is drunk.
The most recently-published version of Breasts and Eggs is made up of two novellas featuring the same characters and set a few years apart, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. In the first book, we meet Natsuko, who is working a minimum-wage job and writing on the side, waiting for her sister Makiko and niece Midoriko to arrive. Makiko has come to Tokyo to see her sister, but also for a consultation on a boob job. She works in a hostess bar in Osaka and as the age of 40 is approaching, feels that this is something she needs. Her research into the operations and clinics available is astoundingly thorough. Midoriko is at the start of puberty and logging her thoughts in a journal, so horrified by her mother’s behaviour that she has stopped speaking to her completely, only communicating via notes in a second, separate notebook. Midoriko is having a very teenage response to everything her mother does and, as with the young characters in Ms Ice Sandwich, Mieko Kawakami perfectly captures Midoriko’s voice, full of frustration, confusion and anger.
On the day of Makiko’s consultation with the clinic, Natsuko takes her niece to an amusement park, hoping to help Midoriko talk again and perhaps begin to reunite mother and daughter. The time with her family also provokes Natsuko to reminisce on her own and Makiko’s childhood, which was hand-to-mouth, the girls experiencing hard times when their father was around, before they and their mother moved in with their grandmother. Losing both women to cancer when they were still very young meant Makiko raised Natsuko before becoming a single mother and Natsuko wonders if things will ever improve for them. Both sisters are barely getting by and Breasts and Eggs is uncompromising on the grind of poverty, from the hassle of missed rent, to a favourite schoolbag and pencil case lost in a moonlight flit, to trying to get breast surgery on the cheap. Natsuko’s eyes are drawn to people others don’t often see: the thin young girl alone on a train, characters from their old neighbourhood or a homeless man looking for cigarette ends that reminds her of her father. She considers the way financial insecurity in childhood follows a person around:
If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had. Don’t ask what was in their fridge or their closet. The number of windows says it all. It says everything. If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know…
For poor people, window size isn’t even a concept. Nobody has a view. A window is just a blurry pane of glass hidden behind cramped plywood shelves. Who knows if the thing even opens. It’s a greasy rectangle by the broken extractor fan that your family’s never used and never will.
The second book is set about eight years on from the first. Natsuko is a published writer, although she is struggling with writer’s block. Makiko and Midoriko are also doing better, with Makiko still at the bar and Midoriko busy with studying and her boyfriend. Natsuko isn’t in a relationship and doesn’t want to be, but she does long to be a mother and can feel her age becoming a problem. In Japan, donor conception is denied to single women, so she dives headlong into extensive googling and forum-lurking, finding foreign clinics, ‘private’ donors and a support group for adults who have discovered they were conceived via donation. At a group meeting, Natsuko meets Aizawa and Yumiko, who are both coming to terms with different childhood traumas but, even in the face of their misgivings, she is determined to proceed.
Meanwhile, Natsuko attends literary occasions with her editor, Sengawa, and another writer called Rika, which gives Kawakami an opportunity to mercilessly examine such gatherings. These friendships give Natsuko wider perspectives on what family life or a lack of it can mean for a woman as Sengawa is happily childless by choice, impressing on Natsuko the need for dedication to her writing, while Rika is a single mother. Her take-down of the pompous male novelist is a thing of beauty:
What the hell are you talking about?… Listen to you. I mean how many years has it been since you wrote anything worth reading?
What’s the point of going on like that anyway? You looking for attention? Then stop ripping off other people’s work to inflate your own ego.”
Mieko Kawakami’s ear for voices is wonderful, with all the different women sounding believable and fresh. I know women who talk like this and you probably do too. The sisters use the Osaka dialect and, while an earlier translation of the first novella by Louise Heal Kawai which used Manchester accents isn’t followed here, their conversations are lively and natural. Rika later waxes lyrical on the way people from Osaka speak and laments how books fail to capture their vitality. (If you want to experience some of the Mancunian version, there are extracts here at Tony’s Reading List.)
So often, readers of Japanese works in English experience women through men’s eyes, but here they aren’t being reduced to ‘portals’ for the men, in fact, there are hardly any men in either of the books, they are either gone or distant. Breasts and Eggs is concerned with how women talk together about their lives, desires and bodies when men aren’t around, and about how they navigate a man’s world and its expectations on them. Whether it is Komi taking in her daughter and granddaughters, or Sengawa encouraging younger writers, Natsuko’s relationship with her niece Midoriko, Makiko being proud that her bar is a place where the girls like to work, or even the confidences shared between Yumiko and Natsuko – who could be in competition with each other – Breasts and Eggs is a book full of women nurturing women and giving each other space to express themselves candidly.
Issues including domestic violence, body dysmorphia, marital discord, bullying mothers-in-law, sexual dysfunction, poverty, child abuse, aging in a society that evaluates women based on youth or prettiness, conception by donor and its impact on bloodlines, are all examined without diverting the flow of the story. Breasts and Eggs reminded me of Koko in Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima, who also finds that her body and choices put her outside of what society considers acceptable for a woman. Like Anna in The Golden Notebook, Natsuko is trying to find a way to live as a woman, writer and mother where she doesn’t have to compromise. And as the demands of a traditional marriage and family structure don’t seem to be serving either women or men in Japan particularly well, I hope we can move towards people having greater flexibility in how they live, work and raise families. (I have hope… and then I read a story like this!)
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Breasts and Eggs was my last read for Women in Translation Month 2020 – although the review was a little later! Have you discovered any new favourites this #WITMonth?