In this Elena Ferrante-like work, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami lays bare women's reproductive and cosmetic options in extraordinary detail.
Breasts and Eggs is Japanese author Mieko Kawakami's first novel to be translated into English. It first appeared as a novella and was later expanded. The book is divided into two parts, with part one the original novella, and the much longer part two the additional material.
The story opens with Natsuko, a novelist suffering writer's block who is receiving a visit from her sister Makiko in her Tokyo apartment. Makiko and her 12-year-old daughter, Midoriko, have come from Osaka, where Natsuko originally grew up. The sisters speak in the local dialect, Osaka-ben, a sassy kind of street talk that dispenses with formalities. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, Kawakami's fast paced conversations read like the sort of thing you'd overhear animated young people speaking.
Makiko and Midoriko – mother and daughter – are experiencing their own personal challenges. Midoriko has gone mute, refusing to speak. We gain insights into her thinking in a series of journal entries. The upshot is she is horrified at the idea of becoming a woman – the bodily changes, the pressure to reproduce - all of it causing revulsion. Meanwhile, Makiko has blithely announced she wants to have breast augmentation. She's casually looking into it and Natsuko is alarmed at all the health risks that go with surgery.
Part two takes place some eight years later. The main themes of part one – the pressure on women to surgically change their bodies, Midoriko's fear at her looming physical maturity – are pretty much dropped. Midoriko now has a boyfriend and Makiko's breast enhancement isn't discussed. Instead, the focus is on Natsuko's body. She wants to have a child and considers using the services of a sperm donor. She doesn't have a partner, nor does she want one, as she finds sex completely unappealing. And so starts a personal journey to find a way to have a baby, without a man being involved.
Breasts and Eggs is fast paced and chatty. Kawakami has a real gift for writing dialogue – often in huge chunks – that is naturalistic and believable. She's clearly a good listener with an ear for verbal ticks and idiosyncrasies. The book's subject matter and style, with its addictive prose, is reminiscent of Elena Ferrante's quartet of Neapolitan novels. Both works investigate in intimate details the lives of women. Kawakami focuses even more strongly on the female body, discussing menstruation and reproduction, among other things, with an unflinching eye.
There are some structural issues with Breasts and Eggs. Part two seems simply bolted onto part one and at 430 pages, the book is long and in parts long-winded. That aside, there is much to enjoy in this surprisingly candid work.
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami. Published by Picador. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books