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Mieko Kawakami: ヘヴン (Heaven)

I su[ppose the best-known book,about bullying, as far as English readers are concerned, is Tom Brown’s School Days. While this book is very much about bullying, it is very different from Tom Brown’s School Days, though the idea of bullying is not dissimilar.

Our unnamed hero/narrator is a fourteen year old schoolboy at the beginning of the novel, which takes place at the beginning of the 1990s. We know he has lost his mother, though we do not know whether she has died or has just moved away. Another woman has moved in and after a year, she suggests he calls her Mum. The two seem to have a good if not very close relationship.

Our narrator has one problem – a lazy eye, which he has had since he was a young child. Moreover, he is not particularly bright nor very personable. As a result, he is subject to frequent bullying.

Ninomiya is very bright, good-looking, good at sports, four inches taller than our narrator and good at telling jokes. As a result he is very popular. He and a few of his friends persistently bully our narrator. They call him Eyes. They make him run errands, hit him (making sure to leave no marks) and generally terrorise him. This is almost a daily occurrence. He does not tell anyone, neither his parents nor teachers. He hasn’t any friends nor any siblings to talk to.

At the beginning of the book, he starts to receive anonymous notes left in his desk. The first simply says we should be friends. Further notes arrive with fairly trivial comments. He immediately suspects Ninomiya or one of his friends. When a note suggests meeting up, giving a place and time, he is sure it is Ninomiya and he is also sure that if he does go, he will be beaten up.

However, he does go and it is not Ninomiya nor any of his friends but Kojima, a girl in his class. She is often scruffy, even dirty, and she, too, is frequently bullied. Her home life has been difficult. She was very close to her father but he has struggled to make a living and his wife, Kojima’s mother,has severely berated him for it, even hitting him. Eventually, the couple divorced and the father has struggled to make a living and cannot afford even the basics. Kojima’s scruffy appearance is in solidarity with her father. Her mother remarried and she does not particularly get on with her stepfather.

Kojima and our narrator start exchanging notes. Both are shy so though they do meet up, it is not too often. They keep their relationship secret having no open contact at school.

When the summer holidays come, Kojima suggests an outing and tells him that she is going to take him to Heaven. They take a train ride and go to an art gallery. Our narrator finds the paintings mystifying. Kojima, however, wants to show him a painting called Heaven, which is a painting of two lovers eating cake in a room with a red carpet and a table. She is very moved by the painting, commenting Something really painful happened to them. Something really, really sad. But know what? They made it through. That’s why they can live in perfect harmony.

Indeed, she is so moved that, when they are sitting outside afterwards, she is in tears. At this point our narrator makes what can best be described as gesture of love towards her, though certainly not one we would expect.

We follow their relationship, which stays pretty much the same. They are still both bullied and, indeed, our narrator gets badly hurt but pretends he was hit by a bike.

Both Kojima and our narrator come up with theories as to why they are bullied. However, when our narrator finally confronts one of the bullies, he is surprised as to the reasons given for their bullying, which do not, to him, seem to make sense.

Inevitably there is a showdown which does not go at all as we would expect. Indeed, it has become apparent that Kawakami is far more interested in the relationship between Kojima and the narrator than in the bullying per se. The bullying is relevant, indeed important, primarily to, firstly, bring the two together and secondly, to give them a bond as bullying victims. The fact that they react differently to it is also important. Is the different reaction because one is a boy and one is a girl? Perhaps, to a certain degree but certainly not entirely.

For our part – and I cannot see why Japanese readers would feel any different – the reaction is how horrible it is, how is it allowed to go on, are the bullies really so awful and why do they do it? One of them gives an explanation, one that is convincing to him but not totally to us or the narrator.

My experience of bullying, both seeing it at school and reading about online bullying, is that bullies pick on people who are different – less intelligent, not so good at sports, some physical impairment (like our narrator) or from a poor background (like Kojima), for example. Those are certainly factors here but Kawakami takes a somewhat different view, not just a bond between the victims but also that this bond and their role as victims make them superior to the bullies.

There is no question that Kawakami is becoming one of the foremost Japanese novelists, not least because she has a different view on life, a view that is interesting and gives us pause for thought. This is another superb work and will certainly help cement her reputation in the English-speaking world.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Kōdansha
First English translation in 2021 by Europa Editions
Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd