BREASTS AND EGGS
By Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Picador/Paperback/404 pages/ $29.95/Available at bit.ly/BEggs_MK
Cramped apartments with barely any windows; a stained tank top; cigarette butts outside the front door.
The stain of poverty permeates this novel by Mieko Kawakami, 44, who was a singer-songwriter and blogger before she became known as a writer.
In 2008, she won Japan's Akutagawa Prize for promising new writers of serious fiction for her novella Breasts And Eggs, which has since been expanded into a novel and now translated into English.
Writer Natsuko, her older sister Makiko and the latter's daughter Midoriko are at the centre of this book, which looks at working-class women.
The sisters grew up in a tiny apartment in town near the ocean with a "little man" of a father and a mother who worked a few jobs a day.
The girls later run away from their deadbeat and abusive father with their mum to join their maternal granny in Osaka. But in two years, they lose their mother to breast cancer and their grandmother to lung cancer.
Makiko, who works as a bar hostess, gets knocked up and becomes a single mother like her mum before her. Natsuko, meanwhile, grabs 10 of her favourite books and moves to Tokyo for her studies, later becoming a struggling writer.
The first half of the story unfolds when Makiko, 39, and the teenage Midoriko travel to Osaka to visit Natsuko, 30, one summer.
Makiko, who faces competition from young foreign rivals, is obsessed with the idea of breast enlargement, while Midoriko, who is grappling with puberty, finds it a strain to talk to her mum.
Poverty and gender intersect in the case of Makiko and Natsuko, who find themselves eking out paths starkly different from that usually taken by women in Japan.
The story, told through Natsuko, explores the ways in which women rebel against social norms in Japan and the relationships between sisters as well as mother and daughter.
The first half of the book culminates in a sticky and messy scene as mother and daughter crack under pressure.
The second half, which is expanded from the novella, introduces more characters and examines the topic of children conceived through donor sperm and the ensuing ethical issues.
Now 10 years older and still single, Natsuko has achieved some success with a published book of short stories. Some envy her free-and-easy existence as a writer, yet she wonders if she is missing out on life.
She dreads the act of sex and toys with the idea of bringing life into the world using donor sperm.
But she reweighs her options after encountering two individuals, Aizawa and Yuriko, who are scarred from being the offspring of anonymous donor dads. Horrible scars in the case of Yuriko, who was sexually abused in her youth.
Author Kawakami displays a deft satirical touch in a scene in which a pudgy man with a wart, who claims his sperm is in the top percentile, offers to grease Natsuko's quest to be a mother, including the option of "skin to skin" delivery of his sperm.
The translators have captured the musicality of Kawakami's prose, though it is hard to discern if they have managed to preserve the original's Osaka dialect.
Leavened by some comic moments, Breasts And Eggs is an ambitious work that takes a good crack at interrogating what makes a woman a woman and the precariousness of a woman's existence.
If you like this, read: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Granta Books, 2019, $17.95, available at bit.ly/ConvStoreW_SM), which tells the story of a female outsider in Japan. The protagonist is 36, single and devoted to her job in a convenience store and the novel paints a fascinating view of life inside these ubiquitous places.
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