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.