Published in English in 2020, by Meiko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
At 430 pages, this one took me some time. From what I’ve read, Kawakami is well-known and lauded in Japan, but this is her first full-length novel translated into English. There have been some critiques of the translation, but I found the spare, direct prose compelling, and each time I picked it up, I slid easily into the narrator’s (Natsuko) consciousness. She’s a writer who grew up poor and was raised by her older sister Makiko after their mother died. This novel is told in two parts, the first of which is focused on the complicated relationship between Makiko and her daughter, and Makiko’s near obsession with getting breast implants. The second, much longer part, is about Natsuko teetering on the brink of great success as a writer, and her growing desire for a child. She is asexual and has been single for most of her adult life, but she wants a baby and begins researching artificial insemination. Most of the people in her life are against this for one reason or another, and those (entirely unfair) reasons are all-too familiar: you can’t raise a baby alone, it’s unnatural, your work will suffer.
These arguments were the most fascinating of the whole novel. Natsuko lives in modern-day Tokyo. She is independent and free in most senses. However, her society still believes it would be wrong for a single woman to have a baby, or for a woman who has other jobs or skills to spend her time mothering. It seems that we still live in a world where women can’t win. The pressure and judgement she feels is beautifully reflected in the intense heat that beats through the windows of her apartment and onto her body each time she steps outside. (This novel is one of the best examples I can recall of how to write weather that means something.)
I couldn’t help but see that all of the judgement Natsuko faces for wanting a baby is basically the same judgement women face for wanting an abortion. If a woman has sex and accidentally gets pregnant, some say she shouldn’t get an abortion because being a mother is ‘natural.’ And in Natsuko’s case, if she doesn’t want to have sex but wants to have a baby, she shouldn’t be artificially inseminated or raise the child alone because it’s not ‘natural.’ In both cases, what society deems as the ‘natural’ course of things takes precedence over what the woman herself actually wants.The judgement is never based on the desires of the woman in question. The judgement is external, made by people who are in no way affected by the woman’s decision.
This book and others like it (ex. Blue Ticket, Red Clocks) are doing important work demonstrating how others’ interference in a woman’s choices for her own life and body are not only backwards and nonsensical, but damaging to the woman herself. For this reason, this novel gets high marks. I do think, however, that the two parts were a bit incongruous, and that the ending felt very rushed, with some important plot points left unexplored. Still, to the powers that be, I ask that everything Kawakami ever writes or has ever written be translated to English, please. Four stars.
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