By Mieko Kawakami; published 2009 and translated to English 2021
The first book I read by Kawakami was Breasts and Eggs, and I loved it so much I requested that all of her books be translated to English. I like to think someone was listening. Although this was published more than ten years ago as Hevun, this year it was translated to English and published by Picador. Lucky us.
Just as in Breasts, Kawakami’s mastery at spare and incisive language is clear here. It is narrated by a 14-year-old boy who we know only as Eyes — the unkind name his classmates gave him due to a lazy eye. He is bullied and tormented on a daily basis. He is terrified and submissive, doing whatever they order — he drinks dirty chalk water and is trapped in a locker, to name just two instances. [Warning: the bullying scenes are graphic.] But when Kojima, his classmate who is bullied for being dirty, starts writing him letters, he finds a lifeline. They become close friends, and although he doesn’t recognize it, the narrator falls in love with her.
Through their secret friendship, the narrator and Kojima discuss why the bullies do what they do, and what their role is in the system that oppresses them. It seems that these conversations and some particularly brutal abuse give Eyes the strength he needs to confront one of his bullies, Momose. Momose is entirely unapologetic and lacks any remorse for his behavior: “I mean, if you want us to leave you alone you’re totally free to want that. But I’m totally free to ignore what you want…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.” This conversation and Kojima’s take on how his eyes define him have a haunting effect on the narrator as he struggles to decide what he believes about himself.
Kojima and the narrator’s parents, or lack thereof, play an interesting role. Kojima misses her now-absent father, who was sent away in shame for not providing well enough for his family. The narrator’s father is also absent, and his biological mother is never mentioned. Instead, he is raised from the age of six by his father’s wife, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he should call her ‘mom.’ As with most things, he does as he’s told without asking questions. While she appears kind and supportive, his mom is entirely unaware of Eyes’ abuse at school, as is Kojima’s mother. While the children don’t confess to being targeted by bullies, it seems their fear and depression should flag to their mothers that something is wrong.
This novel tracks both the physical and emotional brutality of bullying without wallowing in the pain and shame of it. Instead that pain and shame is visceral — it is shown and felt, but never told, making it that much more impactful. Four stars.