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from the May 2020 issue

In Mieko Kawakami’s “Breasts and Eggs,” Oppression and Dissent Begin at Women’s Bodies

Reviewed by Saba Ahmed

This meandering narrative, distinguished with the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, keeps a steady focus on how social pressures and the passage of time come to bear on its characters’ corporeality.

Reading Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs under lockdown is a particularly strange (and estranging) experience, since so much of the novel is concerned with a heightened awareness of the decaying female body, loneliness, and the passage of time. Looking up from a page to re-immerse yourself in real time, then engaging again with the particular texture of Kawakami’s prose, her descriptions of suburban Tokyo and Osaka in which years unspool within the space of a few pages, is a striking reminder of the imaginative powers involved both in reading and writing literature. First published as a shorter novella in Japan in 2008 and distinguished with the Akutagawa Prize, Breasts and Eggs was later expanded by the author into a novel, her first to be translated into English—and so, naturally, the two parts of the book occupy different rhythms and tempos.

Book 1 opens with the protagonist and narrator, Natsu, on the Yamanote Line on her way to meet her older sister and teenage niece at Tokyo Station. She looks at a young girl sitting across from her, scans her faded sneakers, her “way too skinny” frame, her coarse hair and psoriasis, thinking back to her own experience growing up as a poor girl in Osaka. She reflects violently, “How awful would it be if she opened her mouth and all her teeth were rotten.” Later that evening, her sister Makiko—a single mother who works as a hostess at a bar called Chanel in the grimy neighborhood of Shobashi—talks her through the various leaflets she has amassed for breast augmentation surgery, as well as the costs involved, and Natsu listens, impassive. She observes Makiko’s figure in a series of surprising, somewhat ungainly similes:

“Her legs were rail thin, like a pair of disposable chopsticks
[. . .] The skin at the back of her heels was cracked and dry like old mochi. Nothing to her calves but skin and bones, like the taut stomach of a sundried fish.”

All the while, Makiko’s daughter Midoriko refuses to say a single word or engage openly with her mother’s self-obsession. She scribbles feverishly in the notebooks she has been using to diarize her thoughts about adolescence and her own changing body—about menstruation, and breasts and sperm and eggs—occasionally writing out terse messages for her mother and aunt.

Midoriko’s silence is an interesting device that compresses the narrative tension of the first section of the novel, her mutism one of the many ways the characters in the novel react against the lack of agency that comes with having a female body. The sisters chatter in the Osaka dialect, filling the apartment with quick-fire conversational phrases that don’t mean very much in themselves, but rely on a certain posturing to carry through. “If you say so,” Natsu says, self-consciously shrugging off Makiko’s observation that she has a lot of books, to which her sister retorts, “I do.” Later, Makiko teases, “What kind of apartment doesn’t have a balcony?” Natsu’s response, as she laughs: “This kind.” At times, these exchanges read like scripts from dated American sitcoms scored by laugh tracks, but they also suggest that the characters are forever struggling to articulate their true thoughts and feelings, even to themselves, as they struggle, too, to extricate their desires from those imposed on them by social, cultural, and biological pressures. They talk about one another’s deepest longings and anxieties—whether literary aspirations or body dysmorphia—obliquely, feeling their way through the emotional charge around these conversations, both as a marker of respect or compassion, and also fundamentally because they can never know the experience of living in the other’s body.

In the second part of the novel, Sengawa, a literary editor who becomes both a mentor and friend to Natsu, observes,

“Well, we use words to communicate, right? Still, most of our words don’t actually get across. You know what I mean? Well, our words might, but not what we’re actually trying to say [. . .] We live in this place, in this world, where we can share our words but not our thoughts.”

Sengawa—or, we may assume, Kawakami—is trying to put her finger on something more urgent than plot when it comes to telling a story: the “voice, [. . .] the rhythm,” its “personality,” the very vitality that underpins Natsu’s Osaka dialect. Sengawa talks about the importance of readers “who want nothing more than the unknown, the mysterious,” people who “actually listen, try to understand your words, who try to understand you.” It is fitting, then, that the combative energies of the novel—its ambitious register, which fluctuates with Natsu’s changing moods, and its snappy dialogue—are tackled collaboratively by translators Sam Bett and David Boyd, both patient and attentive listeners.

Book 2 is slacker, more capacious, starting ten years after the events of Book 1. Natsu is forty now, and has garnered some praise for a collection of stories in which “all the characters [. . .] are dead, in another world, dying over and over.” She is able to save a modest sum of money each month, which she duly sends to Makiko, and her days appear to be structured by writing pieces for magazines and researching her next book—or rather, procrastinating. In her leisure time, Natsu gets drunk with a constellation of interesting female characters, including the genteel, ailing Segawa and the animated feminist writer Rika. They talk about things as diffuse as literary culture, illness, reproductive options, and asexuality. Sometimes these conversations descend into drunken, raucous rows; at other times, the women are a source of solace and support to one another.

If the pulsing center of the story is hard to find, it’s because there isn’t one exactly. Kawakami, like Natsu herself, creates a literary form that bears witness to the many stories and hardships of working-class and single women. Stretching back to the histories of Natsu’s mother and grandmother, who died prematurely from breast and lung cancer, and all the anonymous women she encounters, the book offers a glimpse of their “countless wrinkles, straight backs, sagging breasts, gleaming skin. Stubby little arms and legs, age spots dark and light, articulated shoulder blades—bodies [that] laughed and chattered about the silliest things, airing their frustrations or bottling them up [. . .] surviving, day by day.” The novel is at its most beautiful and urgent when it presses toward such crystalline epiphanies, even if the story runs out of steam or reaches a conclusion that seems forced or sentimental.

Occasionally, the narrative pauses, and in turn makes the reader pause, breathless—as when Natsu returns to the streets of her childhood in Osaka to celebrate Midoriko’s birthday:

“It was as if a camera flash had been drawn out indefinitely, and the trees, the asphalt, the word ‘STOP’ spelled out on the street, the telephone poles, the old lady, her shopping cart, and all the different shadows had been captured in a giant photograph by the harsh August sun.”

And I, too, pause to squint at the summer light reaching into the corners of this room, Natsu’s question blinding like a camera flash: “How many summers had I been alive?”

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