What a breath of fresh air to have a whole novel focused on female characters! I am aware of the variety of novels out there that feature strong female voices, focus on entirely female cast but I have always had the feeling that there are more novels showcasing the male experience than the female. This is probably a big generalization and I am fully conscious that there are variety of issues that have influenced literary history but I just wanted to share my happiness at discovering a novel that was solely focused on women! Everyday, working-class female chatacters figuring out how to be women in our world and how to find themselves in a society that sometimes makes it really hard for a woman to get what she wants from life. Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami is exactly such a novel that is unapologetic when talking about gender expectations, double standards and what it is like to be a woman in our modern world, her focus falling on Tokyo and Osaka in Japan.
Breasts and Eggs is divided into two parts but follows the same three characters with the reader experiencing life through the voice of the narrator Natsu. In the first part of the novel the reader encounters not only Natsu but also her sister, Makiko, and her niece, Midoriko. This part is fast-paced and it is told over two evenings when Makiko and Midoriko come to visit Natsu in Tokyo. The purpose of this visit is for Makiko to get breast implants. The reader gets a glimpse into the complex relationship between grown-up siblings. Natsu cannot fathom the reasons behind Makiko’s obsession with her own breasts while in the background we have the young Midoriko going through a bodily torment of her own. Puberty has completely confused Midoriko as to her own body, identity and womanhood. At times comical and at times tragic this first part introduces us to women, ordinary women, and their troubles in relation to their bodies and the world around them.
Part two is more extensive and it primarily focuses on Natsu and her struggle to have a baby. Page after page we witness her indecision as to whether or not she wants one, the difficulties she faces as a single woman living in Japan and looking for a donor. We experience her inner turmoil as her body is changing and inevitably growing older. There is an array of background female characters who give us a full portrayal as to the many aspects of womanhood. Natsu’s friends are at different stages of their lives dealing with husbands, babies and careers in a myriad of ways showing us that there isn’t just one path to follow although society has programmed us to think otherwise. Natsu’s struggles with herself and her body will ring truth to many female readers as all these questions are bound to pop into our minds as we grow older. Part two is a slow deliberation that gives us a front row seat where we witness Natsu’s thought process, her angsts and fears and the prose is so vivid that is bound to move most readers.
These two short summaries don’t do the novel full justice. Kawakami’s book is complex and multi-layered asking us deep and profound questions about humanity, social rules, procreation and femininity. Her characters are grounded thus making it for the reader easy to relate and identify with. Although the novel is set in Japan where they have different laws in regards to artificial insemination and pregnancies, the questions Natsu asks herself are universal. Why do people have babies and how do they decide to do so? Is a single parent worse than a couple? Question after question the novel makes us think and it is an unapologetic piece of writing. The male and the female are painfully scrutinized on some pages of the novel painting the female experience in a new way. Breasts and Eggs also touches upon childhood and how it truly shapes us into the individuals we grow up to be. We see poverty, women struggling with life and it is both comical and tragic.
It is hard to capture the full scope of Breasts and Eggs. It is a novel that raises many issues and it is full of ruminations. Although the two parts are very different and do not gel that well together, I was surprised to find out that this did not bother me that much. However, I thought it is a real shame that it is a translated novel for we, the readers, have lost the idiosyncratic prose of Mieko Kawakami (she has written the novel in the Osaka dialect). At times it can be a hard novel to read especially if you have had a tough childhood. It is a novel that asks bold and important questions but does not give us a definite answer for there isn’t one.
Breasts and Eggs is out now, published by Europa Editions