It’s this clash between lack of oomph and leisurely length that makes the second story in Breasts and Eggs less engaging than the first. Which is not to say that it’s never entertaining: there’s a brilliant comic scene where Natsu meets a potential sperm donor, Onda, who brags bumptiously about the quality of his, er, product: “Even as a kid, I could tell from the volume, the thickness, the colour. This was something special.” Terrible people make good reading, but comparing the punchy first story here with the second story brings another cliche to mind: less is more.
It’s not often that a book comes garlanded with both lavish praise and laughable criticism, but Breasts and Eggs has been labelled “breathtaking” by Haruki Murakami and “intolerable” by Shintaro Ishihara, the former governor of Tokyo. Mieko Kawakami’s novel reportedly riled conservatives and the literary establishment in Japan on publication in 2008, but went on to become prizewinning and bestselling. Now it’s a buzzy release here. But while Breasts and Eggs features incisive commentary on being a woman and a mother, and some surreally intense passages, I struggled to understand the fervour it’s inspired... Things continue at a drifty pace, the novel largely made up of Natsuko’s occasional interactions with women who offer differing takes on motherhood. David Boyd’s translation seems to reflect Kawakami’s smoother control over her material, although there’s some heavy-handed exposition and the curiously detached Natsuko doesn’t always make for a thrilling narrator.
This novel by the bestselling Japanese author paints a striking portrait of contemporary working-class womanhood. Mieko Kawakami expertly juxtaposes the universal but rarely discussed mundanities of being a woman – sticking sanitary towels into knickers, using cold water to rinse period blood out of sheets – with moments of unbearable tension.
No matter the linguistic and structural variations of Breasts and Eggs, this idea reverberates in all the novel’s permutations: the body, giving birth and passing away, is the past, present and future. The longing to raise children, and to know another state of freedom, haunts many women. Each time we give birth to a new life, we are also continuing an old one. Natsuko’s sense of her unborn child is visceral; her determination to make a life over again seems as much a backwards glance towards her beloved mother and grandmother as hope for a future daughter. “I don’t want to have [children]. I want to meet them. My child.”
It’s intense and provocative, an intellectual thriller. But a breeziness of delivery, translated in books one and two by Sam Bett and David Boyd respectively, makes for a light-on-its-feet read. Kawakami is a writer who alchemises the banal into a kind of musical poetry. Take the period-blood underwear stain in the shape of Japan that has an uncompromising brilliance in its symbolic schism between the birth-of a-nation power in womanhood and the devastation of “Another month, another egg . . . Nothing this month.” It’s as Natsuko’s mentor says of her own work: “What made that work special? . . . It’s your voice.”