Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

Recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Heaven was first published in Japan in 2009 – it’s my first experience of Mieko Kawakami’s work, but I definitely plan to read more in the future. The novel tackles a very difficult subject – that of adolescent bullying – but does so in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in.

Set in Japan in 1991, Heaven is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who is only known to us by his nickname ‘Eyes’. The boy is systematically bullied – both mentally and physically – by a group of boys in his class, an action he puts down to his lazy eye. Kawakami is particularly insightful on the rush of thoughts swimming around in the narrator’s head as he thinks about the situation at school, from the reasons for the bullying to catastrophising about the future with all its underlying anxieties.  

I could finish school and change my surroundings, but as long as my eye was lazy, I couldn’t rightfully expect any substantial change. It was more likely that things would get much worse, or maybe they already were, and I hadn’t yet realized the extent of it. Maybe I would kill myself like that kid from TV, or maybe someone else would kill me first. Maybe I was already dead. These ideas flooded my mind to the point where I wasn’t sure what I was thinking. I was numb with a mix of fear and nausea. (p. 50)

Early in the novel, a tentative friendship develops between the narrator and a girl in his class, Kojima, who also finds herself on the receiving end of bullying. The other girls perceive Kojima as poor and dirty, referring to her as ‘Hazmat’ due to her scruffy appearance and lack of personal hygiene. In reality though, Kojima is making a personal choice to look this way as a form of solidarity with her impoverished father (now separated from the family) – a sign of kinship, so to speak, despite her mother’s newly-acquired wealth.

At first, the friendship between the narrator and Kojima develops through the notes they leave for one another inside their desks, but in time they begin to meet in a safe place on a fortnightly basis. Kawakami portrays this relationship in such a touching and tender way that feels entirely believable – in essence, both are seen as outsiders by their peers, singled out as ‘different’ due to their physical appearances. It’s also clear that Kojima’s friendship and secret notes – some of which are presented in the text – are the only things that give the narrator a sense of solace as he struggles to get through the days.

On one level, Heaven offers an acute insight into the narrator’s emotions as he tries to process his responses to the bullying. But on another level, the book can also be viewed as an exploration of some of the broader philosophical issues at play. The psychology of bullying, for instance – what prompts people to act the way they do, and how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions? It also considers different strategies for counteracting the bullies, spanning the spectrum from passive submission to active defiance. Perhaps most importantly, Kawakami explores whether there is a kind of strength to be gained by experiencing suffering and pain, a sense of meaning or moral reward for getting through it.

As the discussions between Kojima and the narrator evolve, it becomes clear that the two teenagers see the bullying somewhat differently from one another, particularly in terms of context. While the narrator remains passive when being attacked, trying to distract himself as a means of getting through it, Kojima attaches a deeper meaning to the experience, viewing her endurance of the abuse as a kind of strength, almost as if she’s making a moral stand by suffering in this way. There’s also a sense that Kawakami is making a broader societal point here, drawing attention to the complicity of bystanders who turn the other cheek. By ignoring these acts of cruelty, are we effectively condoning the bullies’ actions by not speaking out? 

[Kojima:] “…We know what’s important, and we know what’s wrong. That’s just not true for anyone else in class. They pretend they don’t know what’s going on. They act nice to the ones who step all over us just to stay on their good side, and to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them. They act like their hands are clean, but they aren’t. They don’t get it, not at all. They’re no different from the ones who hurt us…” (p. 92)

Kawakami adds another viewpoint to the mix through the character of Momose, the ordinarily silent sidekick to the bullies’ ringleader, Ninomiya. In a chance meeting after the novel’s most harrowing instance of bullying, the narrator encounters Momose in a hospital waiting room, and a discussion between the pair ensues. In short, Momose presents the view that everything in life is random, nothing happens for a reason, and there is no such thing as right or wrong. Rather, people do what they feel like doing – moral codes or reasoning simply don’t come into it.

“…Sometimes you just want to do something. You get these, like, urges. Like you want to punch someone, or kick someone, whoever happens to be there. The only reason those things happened to you is that you were around when someone was looking for someone to punch. That’s all.” (p. 114)

“…It couldn’t be any simpler. People do what they can get away with.” […]

As the narrator tries to counteract Momose’s argument, the discussion touches on wider societal issues, highlighting once again various contraindications and inconsistencies in our behaviours. In particular, Kawakami raises questions about the dual standards in certain aspects of society – how in some instances, people are willing to do things to others (such as paying a young woman for sex) that they would not wish to happen to members of their family.

By expressing these different viewpoints through her characters, Kawakami does an excellent job of raising some of the issues related to abuse in quite an open, non-leading way, making the novel a fascinating choice for book groups. There’s certainly plenty to discuss.

Inevitably, for a story like this to feel truthful and authentic, there must be a certain degree of detail in the descriptions of the bullying itself – and it’s fair to say that Kawakami doesn’t hold back on this front, expressing the physical and mental aspects of the abuse in all its heartbreaking cruelty. An extended incident in a gymnasium – where the narrator is basically used as a human football – is particularly vicious.

Ensconced in a darkness whose color I could not define, and unable to allow myself to stand, I spun and writhed, searching for a defense. I had no clue what my body was doing. A tepid lava, black and leaden, rose over my ankles and climbed my legs. It probed my mouth and pumped into my lungs. In no time, it was melting me, working from the inside. I moved my legs, trying to escape, but lost my balance and fell flat. (p. 83)

Nevertheless, the story ends on a hopeful note, a welcome ray of optimism that may give the narrator a route out. A beautifully written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject that deserves to be widely read. Highly recommended, as long as you’re prepared for some uncomfortable scenes.  

Heaven is published by Picador; personal copy.

32 thoughts on “Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I liked this one better than Breasts and Eggs because it was a more compact story and format. But yes, it’s not easy to read at times and I really worried about those children and how they didn’t have anyone really to turn to for help.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting to hear. I must take another look at your review of Breasts and Eggs – I’m sure I’ve seen it before, but a refresher wouldn’t go amiss, especially now that I’ve read Heaven. She feels like a writer willing to tackle some uncomfortable themes about societal expectations, prejudices and disconnects, a little like Yuko Tsushima back her day?

      Reply
  2. mallikabooks15

    Wonderful review. This does sound a powerful read, all the more so for raising broader social questions through the one problem it focuses on, but it’s one I’ve been hesitating to read because of the graphic descriptions of bullying. Lonely Castle in the Mirror which also addresses school bullying I had read just before this translation came out, and while it does mention some incidents of bullying, the weaving in of a fantasy element helps the characters (all victims of bullying) find support and gather the courage to go back to school again; this somehow made it easier for me to read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Mallika. I completely get your hesitation as it’s very uncomfortable to read, particularly when Kawakami zeros in on the physical and mental impact of the bullying. The descriptions of the humiliations and beatings are harrowing to read (albeit completely necessary to convey for the novel to ‘work’), and the emotional aftermath is just heartbreaking to contemplate. You just watch to reach into the book to offer this boy some kind of comfort and support, especially when he’s alone at night. (His mother knows nothing about the bullying incidents at this point in the story, so apart from his friendship with Kojima he’s pretty much dealing with it one his own). Anyway, a deeply affecting book with some beautifully tender interactions that momentarily lighten the tone. It sounds as if Lonely Castle in the Mirror is well worth reading too.

      Reply
  3. jenniferbeworr

    This is a beautifully written review, Jacqui. It is such an important topic, and although I haven’t read the novel, I feel certain you have done justice by it in this review. Thank you. Jenny

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jennifer! That’s very kind of you to say. Hopefully it gives potential readers some idea of what to expect from the novel without revealing too much… :)

      Reply
  4. A Life in Books

    A difficult, important theme handled well by the sound of it. I’ve only read Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich which also explores the difficulties of growing up but in a tender, funny way without losing sight of the soberness of her subject.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I keep forgetting about that one, partly because it’s not part of the Picador list! Thanks for the reminder, Susan. She seems to have a great insight into the challenges of being a teenager.

      Reply
  5. madamebibilophile

    I’ve not read this author but I definitely want to. This does sound a very powerful read about such a deeply upsetting subject. It’s good to hear it ends on a note of hope though!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I was very curious to see how she would end the story, and thankfully it hits just the right note – hopeful without feeling contrived or sentimental. There’s also an unresolved thread or two which might frustrate some readers, but I like the idea that certain outcomes aren’t spelled towards the end. It makes us think about what might happen to each of the main characters going forward…

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Very thoughtful review, Jacqui and it does seem clear that the book is exploring much wider issues through the tale of school bullying; the issues you mention, the complicity and being nice to those bullying, is very much at large in the adult, wider world. I suspect I might find the level of detail around the bullying a little too hard to deal with right now, but I won’t rule out reading this one day!

    Reply
    1. jenniferbeworr

      This is a really good point about the complicity. My oh my is it ever. Thank you for this remark.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Completely. It’s only touched on briefly as the other pupils (outside of the bullying gang) don’t feature in the story, but an important element nonetheless.

        Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      The idea of complicity through silence is such a relevant one, and it reminded me of how hard it is to speak out when a friend or classmate is being bullied at school. You just want to keep your head down and hope the bullies don’t come for you. At least, that’s how I remember it from my secondary school days. Not that I’m saying it’s acceptable to turn the other cheek, but calling out the bullies is easier said than done when you’re young, vulnerable and fearful of the consequences. Interestingly, there’s no mention of teachers in this story (IIRC), so the option of confiding in a teacher or another responsible adult just doesn’t come up…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes. Funnily enough, the absence of teachers only struck me after I’d finished the book. It stays very much within the sphere of the children.

          Reply
  7. Liz Dexter

    An important sounding book; I don’t think I could deal with it as I’m one of those people who seems to attract bullies and have had to give up some pastimes as an adult as well as being tormented as a child. But I do welcome people talking about it and portraying it in such a visceral way.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I kind of feel it should be required reading for teenagers in school – to the point where I could imagine it being on the syllabus in Japan!

      Reply
  8. heavenali

    This sounds very powerful but excellent too. I have read reviews of this before, and now feel I definitely want to read it. I think the bullying scenes would be hard to read about and I generally don’t enjoy reading about bullying and yet I feel drawn to this nevertheless. Those ideas of complicity are especially interesting, not an angle that is not always addressed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d love to hear what you think of it, Ali. Like you, I was somewhat hesitant about the prospect of reading this when it first appeared, but its inclusion of the International Booker shortlist sort of tipped me over the edge. Plus it’s short, which really works in its favour. If it’s any help, I loved the relationship between the narrator and Kojima, which is conveyed with such tenderness, authenticity and a wonderful lightness of touch. You really get the sense that this author understands the world of teenagers – how they speak and feel etc.

      Reply
  9. kimbofo

    Great review, Jacqui. I read this last year and remember thinking there was an alarming absence of adult intervention in the bullying behaviour but then I suspect so much goes under the radar and teenagers are very good at being secretive. I ‘enjoyed’ the book but found it a bit nihilistic/violent. My 17yo neice read it too and she loved it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Kim. I think you’re right about the narrator being very good at hiding everything, with the exception of his discussions with Kojima. Also, we know the bullies are super-smart (grade A students in fact), so they’re very skilled at targeting their blows and kicks at the ‘right’ areas to avoid the bruises being visible to anyone else (until we get to the gym incident, of course). The absence of any teachers in the story only struck me at the end, but I guess Kawakami wanted to keep the focus on the teenagers. Plus, the teachers probably see Ninomiya and Momose as great students without realising what goes on outside of class… I’m glad to hear that your niece got a lot out of it. That’s really encouraging to hear!

      Reply
  10. gertloveday

    An excellent review that shows the tragedy and ubiquity of bullying. I feel that it would be too much for me
    As I write this I am watching The Story of Film Part 2. So many horrific films. Beautiful but horrific. Have you seen it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Is that the Mark Cousins series of documentaries? No, I haven’t seen them, but I’d like to. I don’t think they’re available on Mubi, which is my go-to streaming platform – fingers crossed they’ll pop up at some point as they do sound very tempting.

      Reply
  11. BookerTalk

    This was indeed a difficult read because of the subject matter. She handled the violence really well I thought, enough details to show the horror of the attack but not gratuitous. I did worry about the future for Kojima, there doesn’t seem to be much hope at the end of the book for this deeply troubled girl

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, completely. The bullying had to be included to show the sheer horror of the impact on the narrator, but it didn’t feel gratuitous or voyeuristic in any way (which is a credit to Kawakami’s skill as a writer). Like you. I’m left worrying about Kojima, particularly as her storyline is so open at the end. I suspect some readers might find that aspect frustrating, but I admire Kawakami’s decision to add that degree of ambiguity. It forces us to think of the possible outcomes/future paths for Kojima, many of which could be challenging…

      Reply
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  13. 1streading

    As you say, some really harrowing scenes in this novel. I preferred it to Breasts and Eggs, though, which felt a little clumsily put together. I’m planning to read her new one next month.

    Reply
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