Heaven: A Novel

by Mieko Kawakami

Other authorsDavid Boyd (Translator), Sam Bett (Translator)
Hardcover, 2021

Status

Available

Publication

Europa Editions (2021), 192 pages

Description

From the bestselling author of Breasts and Eggs and international literary sensation Mieko Kawakami comes a sharp and illuminating novel about the impact of violence and the power of solidarity in our contemporary societies. Hailed as a bold foray into new literary territory, Kawakami's novel is told in the voice of a fourteen-year-old student subjected to relentless torment for having a lazy eye. Instead of resisting, the boy chooses to suffer in complete resignation. The only person who understands what he is going through is a female classmate who suffers similar treatment at the hands of her tormenters. These raw and realistic portrayals of bullying are counterbalanced by textured exposition of the philosophical and religious debates concerning violence to which the weak are subjected. Kawakami's simple yet profound new work stands as a dazzling testament to her literary talent. There can be little doubt that it has cemented her reputation as one of the most important young authors working to expand the boundaries of contemporary Japanese literature.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member steve02476
Started out liking it a lot, but I had more mixed feelings in the second half or so. Partly it seemed a bit repetitive and partly a bit random. But there were definitely some good parts all the way through.
LibraryThing member modioperandi
Although it started with the dark theme and plainly stated descriptions of brutal bullying, it is full of charm that makes you want to keep reading. Mieko handles the subject with feeling and characters that full pull you into this gripping story that throttles to a can't put it down ending.

With
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Heaven, Mieko Kawakami manages once again to describe to us a difficult aspect of Japanese society, and the way of thinking so particular of his people in certain situations. It is certainly a harsh and violent novel, but it also brings a certain beauty thanks to the two main characters, who, even if they can not help it, are no longer alone in the face of the violence they must endure.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
HEAVEN is anything but a lighthearted coming-of-age-in-middle-school tale. Instead, it has the feel of a Stephen King horror story about children trapped in a nightmare filled with the threat of gratuitous violence. Kawakami raises some basic questions about teenage bullying. Who gets bullied? Why
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do some people torment others? Why do the victims tolerate it? Unfortunately, she offers few answers. Instead, she superficially jumps between a host of more subtle themes, including non-conformity, adolescent angst, breakdowns in familial communication, common issues around violence, and the limitations of societal norms for coping with cruelty and weakness.

Kawakami’s nameless 14-year-old protagonist is surrounded by silence at home from his stepmother and at school where no adult seems to be aware of or even care about his constant struggle with intense bullying. It is hard to see how these settings can be construed as even remotely heavenly. Instead, they seem more like a living hell. In the final analysis, Kawakami leaves this young man confused, isolated, vulnerable and exposed.

Kojima is a fellow traveler, who seeks to connect with the boy through a series of cryptic notes that eventually grow into a clandestine friendship. Her background resembles his—distant mother and absent father who has his own set of societal challenges. The teens bond in safe places with a shared sense of victimhood. Their conversations start by dancing around their experiences with bullying, but eventually address them directly. Neither seems to fully understand their predicament. The boy tries to make sense of his plight by attributing the bullying to his “lazy eye”, an explanation Kawakami seems ambivalent about accepting. When a kindly physician suggests that he get a rather simple procedure for his eye, the boy and Kojima are not so sure he should follow this advice since his eye is part of his identity. Kojima, on the other hand, has confusing thoughts about her own bullying experience reasoning that giving in actually is some form of resistance.

Kawakami’s plot seems simple enough. The bullying is unrelenting and escalates as the story moves forward. She is unflinching in her graphic depictions of the depravity, while also evoking insight and compassion depicted by Kojima and the doctor who treats the boy’s injuries. Despite this level of control, Kawakami’s narrative is not flawless. There seems to be much introspection with little resolution to show for it. The characters are all teenagers, yet they sound like worldly adults. Although not as gruesome as Stephen King’s prom scene in “Carrie,” the inevitable revenge is riveting. Yet, it may be too subtle to resolve much. Are the tormentors at bottom really only cowards or just displaying common teenage embarrassment by nudity? What were Kojima’s motivations for behaving as she does in this scene? In the final analysis, one wonders if Kawakami is saying that confrontation is the only viable solution to bullying?
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
A young teenage boy is horrendously bullied in his middle school. Because of a lazy eye, he is regularly called “Eyes”. He thinks this is the reason he is picked on. A young teenage girl, Kojima, is also horribly bullied. Kojima sends the boy a series of short notes, convinced that they will
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become friends. And a friendship does develop, though they keep it entirely secret. Meanwhile the bullying continues in frighteningly violent ways. Kojima sees a kind of nobility in their suffering. The boy is not so sure. What does it all mean, he wonders. And this question of meaning comes to the boil when the boy confronts one of his persecutors, Momose. Momose professes an almost pure nihilism declaring that there is no meaning at all in the world. He doesn’t feel bad about what he does when picking on the boy because there is no such thing as good or bad. The boy defends the view that meaning infuses everything, perhaps convinced by Kojima. Their somewhat out-of-place and unresolved argument serves as the fulcrum of the novel. After this point the boy is less convinced of the virtue in his suffering. Moreover, Kojima suspects him of losing faith and her response is rejection. Nothing, however, prevents the continued bullying. But without their hidden solidarity it becomes much harder to cope. The decline reaches an unfortunate but perhaps predictable extreme. And then life changes again for the boy.

On the surface this is a novel about teen suffering with a scaffolding of conflicting philosophical worldviews lending it significance. Nevertheless, at some point the scaffolding becomes more substantial than that which it surrounds and it really does become a challenging novel of ideas. That the contrast between the views presented is so stark does not prevent a kind of subtlety to arise as the boy struggles to navigate through these waters. Periodically adults contribute to his thinking but ultimately the question remains open despite the near apotheosis of the boy’s “vision” at the end. As his doctor suggests in a different context, after one’s life changes one often cannot even remember what it was like previously. Perhaps.

Gently recommended.
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
Mieko Kawakami’s 2009 novel Heaven has now been translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd and has been published in a Europa edition. It follows the success Kawakami enjoyed last year when her novel Breasts and Eggs became the first of her books to be published in English.

Because
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of its heartbreaking plot, Heaven is not an easy novel to read. It tells the story of two middle school students, one male and one female, who are so tormented and abused by their classmates that their lives are no longer their own. Everything that happens to the two of them is recounted by the unnamed boy who is being so badly bullied. He is the target of a small group of boys led by class favorite Ninomiya, a handsome, charismatic, but extremely cruel young man. Another gang member, a boy called Momose, is always around when our narrator is being bullied, but never gets his own hands dirty, preferring simply to stare from the outskirts of the action with a blank look on his face and his arms crossed.

“Without school, I could get by without seeing anyone or being seen by anyone. It was like being a piece of furniture in a room that nobody uses. I can’t express how safe it felt never being seen. I knew the peace could never last, but it was immensely comforting to know that, if I never left my room, no one in the world could lay a finger on me. The flip side was I had no way of engaging with the world, but that was how it had to be.” - Narrator

Kojima, a girl who comes to school everyday unwashed and having taken no care at all to her personal appearance, suffers a similar fate from a gang of girls who delight in tormenting her both emotionally and physically. She and the boy, despite their common suffering, have never acknowledged each other in the classroom, much less spoken about what is happening to them. Then one day, Kojima leaves an unsigned note hidden in the boy’s pencil case saying, “We should be friends.” The boy is almost certain that this is just another trick and that he is being set up for a new embarrassment at the hands of his bullies, but the notes keep coming and his curiosity keeps growing. Finally, more desperate for a friend than he knows, the boy agrees to meet the note-writer in the stairwell after school. And he and Kojima become each other’s only friend.

For the rest of the school year, through the summer, and into the new school year, the boy with the lazy eye and the “dirty” girl exchange letters and notes, and even meet occasionally to share their lives. They are still mercilessly bullied by their peers, but their lives are a little better for the friendship they share. But, of course, that will not be tolerated by either set of bullies when they finally figure out that Kojima and the boy have become friends behind their backs.

Bottom Line: Heaven is a disturbing novel that shines a spotlight on bullies and their victims. Kojima and the boy justify to themselves their own passiveness to everything they suffer, but the bullies sense their unwillingness to defend themselves and continue to escalate their cruelty. That is hard to watch, and I kept wondering where the adults were while all this was happening — realizing of course, that this kind of silent suffering at the hands of peers often goes unnoticed by parents and teachers until it is too late to do anything about it. This is a coming-of-age novel from Hell, and Hell would have, perhaps, been a more suitable title for this one than Heaven (the title has a specific meaning to the boy and the girl).
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
A coming-of-age story of sorts, this book looks at several months in the life of a middle-school boy "Eyes" with a lazy eye. He is tormented by his male classmates--mentally and physically. His only friend is a girl Kojima, who is similarly bullied by the girls. Their friendship is largely secret,
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as they commiserate and try to wait it out. But is this a true friendship? Kojima does not want Eyes to have surgery to fix his eye, clearly afraid she will be abandoned even though he will gain depth perception. And he does nothing about her continued weight loss. They are two very lonely kids who pour out their hearts in letters but are, nonetheless, very selfish in their relationship.

This book made me very uncomfortable as the parents and teachers do nothing. The kids are cruel, but the adults are worse. Kojima comes to school unbathed, in dirty clothes, clearly depressed as she mourns the breakup of her family. And then she becomes anorexic? And her mother and teachers just do...nothing? Eyes is teased and regularly beaten? I find this all a little too unbelievable and the excessive continuing cruelty both unnecessary and unbelievable.
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LibraryThing member dianeham
This book is great. Hard to read about the bullying but taken as a whole - just incredibly great.
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
A heartbreaking tale of middle school bullying. Two students are bullied relentlessly and find solace in their secret friendship outside of school. The prose is exquisite. I ached all through the novel, ached for the characters and all the children who suffer silently. Some writers just capture the
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essence of human emotion, and Kurakami is one of those. Read it!
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LibraryThing member paroof
Exceeded my expectations! This story is told through the eyes of two bullied middle school students who bond over their shared experience. This beautiful written and translated book explores deep philosophical and religious themes about weakness vs. strength, intention, free will, and more. And
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though all of these are difficult topics the book pulls you along making you want to keep reading.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
Once I started this book, I couldn't set it down -at the same time both touching and horrifying - at times I felt physically ill. After just reading about the tragic real-life suicide of transgender activist Henry Berg-Brousseau, this really had even more of an impact on me. So much hate in this
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world, hate without any real source other than difference. Sad that it is the sensitive and caring that are most likely to kill themselves then the monsters that drive them to it.
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LibraryThing member BibliophageOnCoffee
In a world full of Momoses, be an unnamed narrator.

Awards

Language

Original language

Japanese
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