Breasts and Eggs: A Novel by Mieko Kawakami Translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd

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We had no relatives to call for help, and zero chances of marrying into money. Less than zero. Lottery odds.

Breasts and Eggs is about being oppressed through poverty but also it’s about the female body as an instrument for survival or a vessel for motherhood. It begins with Natsu’s older sister Makiko and her silent daughter Midoriko arriving by train for a visit. While silent in her mother’s presence for over half a year, her mind is a hive of anxiety about her changing body, but she doesn’t share these thoughts with her single mother; their communication solely through written words on paper. Nothing is wrong with her, she speaks perfectly normally at school and with friends, ‘she just refused to talk at home’. This is just another strain between Natsu and Makiko, especially after news that her elder sister wants to get breast implants, which will certainly improve her working life as a hostess. Spending her nights slaving in a less than glamorous location with ‘no shortage of vagrants and drunks’, women with bigger breasts make more money. While Midoriko ponders how awful it must be to menstruate for decades, her mother looks really old, and she isn’t even forty yet. Natsu is at odds with the way Makiko is behaving like everything is okay. As if her daughter’s self imposed silence is a rite of passage. She is more disturbed by Makiko’s obsessive plan to improve her body.

Soon, Makiko is sharing colorful brochures that are the guide “to be more beautiful”.  Hers is a life without prospects, there wasn’t anyone helping make her life better. The sisters past losses turned their lives to one of poverty and struggle. Survival in it’s rawest sense, and at a young age. Welfare, not an option. Before them, their own mother struggled. Even now, there isn’t enough money to stretch, let alone for breast implants! What about the health risks to her body? When they visit a bathhouse its a perfect example of women comparing themselves to others and how imperfections can be fixed. Natsu is helpless to make her sister see reason. For young Midoriko, the body is beginning to feel like a thing she has no control over, her future will just be a lifetime of bending to it’s demands, and seeing how making money every day just to keep it alive has drained her mother of youth and vitality makes her feel very afraid. Too, why would anyone want to create another life, just another body (like she herself is for her mom) that is more weight to your financial woes? She is horrified, feeling captive to her body’s changes, much like a runaway train she can’t stop or maybe like an approaching monster? Most women forget how scary leaving childhood behind is, when the body first begins to bud. It’s not always an easy progression, though a natural stage. Natsu herself is single in the most severe sense. No child, no partner and what does this lonely state say about her? With the visit from her family, memories are being brought out of the dark again about the sisters hard past. Natsu too thinks about the body and beauty, expectations, how to define happiness which seems much easier for those who please the eye. Worse, she sees her dream more as a hobby, herself as a failure having moved to Tokyo to become a writer ten years earlier and yet not a great success that can bring money in to help her elder sister and niece. It’s only a matter of time before Midoriko erupts emotionally about how her mother is effecting her and the strain between the sisters comes to a head.

In Book Two Natsu is found giving her everything in her writing, which to some doesn’t seem good enough. Through celebrity interest her luck changes and finally she tastes success. She finds support through an editor Sengawa, for a time who nudges her to reach deeper. She wisely informs her that it’s the real readers of literature she must reach. She wrestles with her own anxieties, the fact that in a relationship her body refuses to enjoy the physical fusing most people long for and don’t just ‘endure’. What sort of woman is she? To feel stunted in this way? A woman who retreats from such affection? She never feels more alone than when entwined with a man. What if she decides to have a child after-all, maybe better as a single mom, subtracting a man from the equation altogether?  It’s possible and a problem many single women face. There is always sperm donation. This quest brings her closer to children, now adults, born impacted by donor conception. Not everyone feels being born was a blessing. How will this effect her decision? This novel is a deep exploration into not just motherhood but the very nature of womanhood itself. For Midoriko when she is young in book one, her body feels like it’s gone rogue, for another character in book two, it stood out to me that with illness, it is the same. The body taking over. Choices are weighted in the entire story, there is no right or wrong path, and every decision they make effects someone. Parenthood and what a mother or father is reaches deeper than blood too through the novel. Natsu doesn’t feel normal, the way you should in relationships, but should she have to feel that way in order to create a family? Does she want to? As she ages, the question if she wants to remain alone is a heavy one.

There is so much happening in the novel, and it’s intelligently written but I sometimes wished the pace picked up. However, there is gorgeous writing within. “People are strange, Jun. They know nothing lasts forever, but still find time to laugh and cry and get upset, laboring over things and breaking things apart.”  One of the most beautiful moments in the novel is when Aizawa (you’ll meet him between the pages) talks about the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. It moved me.

Women’s bodies are as complicated as our lives can be, every single stage from puberty to the end, and every decision we make from whom touches us to whether or not we carry a life within. There are illnesses, emotional obstacles, careers (some grand, others necessary for survival), and always memories of all that came before. How Kawakami fit so much in the telling, I can’t say. I lived in Okinawa, and I think I read books written by Japanese authors a little differently having a bit broader understanding of the culture than someone who has never visited or lived among the people yet I think anyone can relate to what happens to the characters. This is perfect for readers who enjoy other cultures, and women’s issues too.

Publication Date: April 17, 2020

Europa Editions

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