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Mieko Kawakami: ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Ms Ice Sandwich)

Our hero is a Japanese boy in grade four (age 9-10). His father died when he was four and he lives with his mother and paternal grandmother. He and his mother stayed on in the house too look after the grandmother. However, she has now had a stroke, is bedridden and cannot talk. The mother now seems to have some sort of fortune-telling group, though our narrator is not entirely sure what is going on. It seems to involve lots of women getting together and his mother crying.

Our narrator is something of a loner. However, he has a male friend, nicknamed Doo-Wop, and has recently become moderately friendly with a girl nicknamed Tutti Frutti. She has casually invited him to her house to watch her father’s huge collection of DVDs.

However, his real love is Ms Ice Sandwich. She works at the sandwich bar in the local supermarket. Ms Ice Sandwich is, of course, a nickname he has invented, as her eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer.

He noticed her when he went shopping with his mother and always tries to buy a sandwich from her. He now sometimes goes on his own and spends his limited money on a cheap egg sandwich. He does not really like sandwiches. Ms Ice Sandwich is very efficient but she is not very friendly, either to him or to her other customers.

He often sits and does his homework in his grandmother’s room and he tells her, among other things, about Ms Ice Sandwich, even though she almost certainly cannot understand what is going on.

One day, he hears a group of girls at school – the older ones, who seem to like only dancing and do not do any work – talking about the Sandwich Lady and they are highly critical of her appearance. Indeed, they find her so creepy that they do not shop there any more. Our narrator is both baffled and hurt by these comments.

However, despite his love for Ms Ice Sandwich, it is Tutti Frutti to whom he becomes close. She invites him to her house to watch a DVD with her father. The father seems to sleep through much of it – the film is Heat – and our narrator finds it particularly violent. Tutti Frutti, however, is particularly carried away by the final shoot-out, so much so that she replays it (she has seen it numerous times before) and even gets our narrator involved in a re-enactment.

He has not seen Ms Ice Sandwich much since then but has mentioned her to Tutti Frutti and it is Tutti Frutti who persuades him to speak to her and how to do it.

I read this book because Haruki Murakami had particularly praised Kawakami, though more for her book Breasts and Eggs than this one. While I certainly found it charming and whimsical, with the problems faced by both boys and girls when growing up, particularly in their dealings with the opposite sex, I cannot really share Murakami’s enthusiasm, at least based on this novel.

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Sairyu-sha
First English translation in 2017 by Pushkin Press
Translated by LouiseHeal Kawai