Literary wanderings: The haunting brilliance of Kawakami’s ‘Heaven’

Japanese symbols, the title of the book "Heaven," are above a girl's head. She has a lazy eye.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

The onset of stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic brought a dramatic resurgence of interest in nearly all books — particularly in the “comfort” read genre. Whether it was newly published books with uplifting feel-good narratives or cherished stories from childhood, this slice of the book world flourished.

The reason why someone would pick up a book of this genre is clear, and it’s a shining example of the solace that can be sought in books during times of crisis and uncertainty. But what about the opposite? What do we do with the books that disturb and haunt us? Reading “Heaven” by Mieko Kawakami pushed me to ask just that.

Mieko Kawakami is undoubtedly having a moment of literary celebrity. Three of her novels, initially published in Japanese, have been translated into English in the last three years. And her novel “Heaven” was recently a finalist for the 2021 International Booker Prize.

She, along with writers such as Sakaya Murata and Yoko Tawada, represents a new vanguard in Japanese literature, and their work has also been enormously successful in translation.

While Kawakami claims Haruki Murakami as an early inspiration, and he in turn has highly praised her early work, she has taken strong steps to set herself apart from him, heralding the beginning of a new post-Murakami Japanese literary landscape. In a 2017 interview with Murakami, Kawakami famously dove into the lingering questions readers have been asking for years regarding the misogyny and uncomfortably two-dimensional portrayal of women throughout Murakami’s novels.

Where Murakami falters for me — I read a large chunk of “Kafka on the Shore” before ultimately abandoning it — Kawakami soars. Her work is deeply realist, which would generally not be my literary cup of tea, but she wields it with immense power.

“Heaven” focuses on the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Japanese middle school where two children are bullied mercilessly in a personal hell carefully hidden from anyone with the power to help.

The chilling cruelty of children is piercingly vivid, and the unnamed narrator’s growing isolation, pain and fear are palpable. And yet, the book is not without its moments of solace. After months of feeling completely alone in his daily torment, our main character sits at his desk to find a note from Kojima, a girl in his class who is also relentlessly bullied.

The two strike up a kinship and alliance, writing to each other every day and hiding the notes in clever places. It’s a thin but powerful thread of connection, giving both a renewed sense of resolve to endure their tormentors. But, it is also tenuous. After months of surviving on their own, their blossoming friendship feels exceedingly fragile — as if one wrong move could bring everything crashing down.

In one scene, the narrator spontaneously allows Kojima to cut a few locks of his hair. It’s early summer, their school year of torment is over and the two have escaped to an art gallery outside the city. Upon first reading it, I found the scene odd and perhaps a bit out of place, but as Kawakami continues to weave the story of their friendship, it becomes a touchstone scene. A simple moment of safety and intimacy between two children who are reminded nearly every other day of their lives to stay constantly alert, avoid interaction and melt into the shadows. For a moment they are at peace, together and seen.

They are united by their shared understanding of daily suffering, but also, heartbreakingly, unable to solidify their interactions into a strong friendship. They are afraid, as the other students cannot know of this secret alliance of the outcasts.

Kawakami deals with startling imagery and searing emotions in such a compact space. It is a masterclass in form, concision and economy of language to the most shattering effect. I read “Heaven” in two breathless sittings; first on the train one morning, and the next morning over breakfast.

The book ultimately comes to a crescendo in a heart-racing scene towards the end that I can only describe as deeply unsettling. The hours after I finished the book were a bit of a daze, some of its alienation and paranoia feeling as if it had somehow seeped into me. This is not a book you forget.

While “Heaven” and books like it are not something I frequently reach for, they are undeniably important. Firstly, Kawakami has written a book that engages the senses of the reader in very real and visceral ways – it is an undeniable literary feat, even if to uncomfortable effects.

Secondly, and more broadly, they offer crucial meditations on sometimes deeply troubling human realities. Books such as this call attention to the ills and darker corners of our society: places we may not wish to look, but where it is important that we do.

In this way, “Heaven” builds upon a crucial tradition of social critique through fiction. Kawakami weaves a careful blend of vivid characters and startling scenes with larger philosophical questions that drill directly to the particular ways in which we choose to live. It is in this subtle but world-changing way that the novel transcends into the realm of truly exceptional literature.

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. He is currently throwing together last-minute plans for a fall break trip.

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