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Book Review - Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, West Bengal, India)

Exploring the Morphing Identity of a Woman

Mieko Kawakami
Breasts and Eggs
Picador 2020
ISBN-13: 978-1509898206
Pages 430, Price Rs 650

Exploring the Morphing Identity of a Woman
The second novel of Japanese literary star, Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs is the expanded version of the novella of the same name published in Japan in 2008. It went on to win the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. The novel is translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd, who have done a great job at capturing the unique plight of the central character, Natsuko Natsume and upholding the
cultural milieu. Piercing through social constructs and expectations, the book explores the identity of a woman and the subtle ways in which it is constantly morphing.

The book is primarily divided into two parts. Book One begins when the narrator (a 30-year-old-woman living in Tokyo seeking to establish herself as a writer) is visited by her older sister, Makiko and niece, Midoriko from their hometown in Osaka. Makiko works as a hostess in a bar and is keen on getting a breast enhancement. The sole reason she comes to the city is to explore the options for breast surgery.

This intense obsession unwittingly creates a distance between her and the narrator as well as her own daughter, Midoriko. In fact, the wedge between Makiko and Midoriko reaches such a degree where the latter stops speaking to her. As her diary entries reveal, Midoriko is disgusted at the idea of her changing body during adolescence as much as by her mother’s fascination for plastic surgery.

Book Two is positioned 10 years after the incidents of Book One. Natsuko has found substantial success and manages to make a living as a writer. However, she increasingly finds herself in a quandary – wanting to have a child of her own while having a painful aversion towards sex. She glosses over the options available and finally becomes interested in donor conception. But artificial insemination, like most other privileges in society, is limited to an ideal hetero-normative family unit. For single adults and
same-sex couples, availing sperm donation is illegal. And so begins Natsu’s struggle against the barricades of convention and prejudice.

Throughout the journey in the novel, Kawakami deftly ramifies the identity of a woman and the ideas that are considered intrinsic to it. Does a woman have to look a certain way to be considered attractive and worthy? Is it a woman’s biological destiny to be a mother? If one cannot emotionally enjoy sex even with the man she loves, does her identity as a woman stay intact? Also, certain radical points of view are put forth, prompting thoughtful debates. For example, Rika, another woman writer tells Natsu that it is structurally impossible for a man and a woman to see eye to eye as they are starkly different. She also
predicts that a time would come when women would stop having babies altogether – “where the whole process can be separated from women’s bodies, and we can look back at this time, when women and men tried to live together and raise families, as some unfortunate episode in human history.” (Page 315)

In another instance, Yuriko, who survived childhood sexual abuse, opines how bringing a child into the world is essentially a selfish and unkind act as it involves betting on someone else’s life. The child does not ask to be born but the parents usher him/her to life for their own happiness. Such diverse points of view may appear disturbing but they undoubtedly create a composite canvas.

As the work explores individual struggles and trajectories, it also projects a tacit understanding and compassion among the women characters, even if they do not agree with each other all the time. This is endearing and holds the promise of a better and easier world for women. It is also particularly empowering to watch Natsu refusing to relinquish her own desire (as she had in her previous relationship), even at the cost of losing a valuable friendship. When the man towards whom she has feelings reciprocates, she is brave enough to tell him: “I don’t have the right to be a part of your life in that way….I can’t do normal things.” (Page 364) Also, she takes the time to explain her stance and decision to Yuriko even when there is no obligation, which is moving. It shows the existence of respect
despite accordance with binary points of view.

The prose is lucid and unsentimental. The descriptions of places and scenes are at times beautifully detailed, and it is a pleasure to read through them. Profound philosophy also surfaces now and then. For instance, while disposing eggs that had gone bad, Natsu thinks to herself: “When I throw eggs away, I never know if I’m supposed to crack them first, or toss them in there, or place them in the bin like you’re laying them yourself. What’s the right way to do it? Is there even a right way?” (Page 90) At another point, in support of Natsu conceiving through donor sperm Rika says: “If you want to have a kid, there’s no need to get wrapped up in a man’s desire…There’s no need to involve women’s desire either. There’s no need to get physical. All you need is the will, the will of a woman.” (Page 320)

The use of symbolism is subtle but meaningful. It can be found in the weasels that suddenly start appearing in the restaurant where Midoriko works, harassing the manager and staff to no end. And then with time, they disappear on their own. We cannot help but think that Natsu’s problems, as much as those existing in the other characters’ lives, are like the weasels. Also, Aizawa’s reference to the
spacecrafts Voyager I and Voyager 2, is highly significant. He speaks of how it’s been years since they completed their original mission yet they were still floating through space. The Voyager flying through the darkness acts as a sign of hope for tough times.

A couple of things somewhat interfere with the reading experience. Other than Aizawa, complex male characters are conspicuously absent. Additionally, there is a lack of exploration of man–woman relationships and mother–son relationships compared to woman–woman and mother–daughter relationships. The picture would have been more wholesome had these been included. But perhaps the inclination towards women is in tandem with the title of the book.

The social and cultural context is deftly brought to the fore. We get a vivid depiction of modern day Japan, beginning from the bathhouses and bars with hostesses to the availability of websites offering donor sperm illegally and anonymously.

The cover photo showing a woman with her tears flowing upwards, instead of downwards, is creative. It hints at the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which women are overcoming their dynamic challenges and subverting the conventional role.

Breasts and Eggs is an insightful book, on the whole. Kawakami’s work has earned praise from the legendary Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami himself and on reading this book, one can tell why. She is definitely a literary sensation to reckon and deserves credit for broaching subjects rarely explored in Japanese literature.

You can get your copy here.

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