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B+ : well-done, in every respect
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Heaven is narrated by a middle-school student nicknamed Eyes, because of his lazy eye.
He lives with a stepmother who has taken over the mother-role -- he calls her 'Mom' -- and a father who is hardly a presence in the household any longer, barely showing himself at home (which Eyes does not seem particularly disturbed by), a cracked if otherwise nominally functioning and benign family unit.
At school, Eyes is mercilessly and cruelly bullied by a gang led by classmate Ninomiya -- a boy who has effortlessly been the center of attention since elementary school, "the best athlete in our grade, but he also got straight A's, and he had a chiseled face that anybody would consider beautiful".
Eyes is the preferred victim of the group, just as a girl named Kojima is of the girls in class; both are treated appallingly.
I knew that if I told them the truth, neither of them would want anything to do with me. If they found out I was being bullied, I was as good as dead.Yet his father already seems to not want to have much to do with him anyway. His stepmother seems like she could be more understanding, but perhaps sensing the fragility of the household -- the parents barely connect any longer, and it's no surprise that the stepmother eventually mentions the possibility of divorce to Eyes --, Eyes is simply too afraid that his situation would shatter what is left of it. The stepmother being an outsider who had stepped into the mother-role, he perhaps worries that this one limited element of stability in his life might also disappear.
The other children in class turn an indifferent or blind eye to what is going on with Eyes and Kojima (if not actively participating in it), while the adults, at home and at school, remain entirely oblivious.
Japan's bullying problem is still notorious, but interestingly this 2009 novel is set at the beginning of the 1990s (a time when it also seems to have been considered more of an issue); Kawakami did not have to specify a time for the action but she pointedly does -- and with her choice suggests this is a story from another time, choosing to forsake any more pressing immediacy. And, indeed, Heaven isn't really an issue-novel; bullying is central to it, but she's trying to do considerably more than just highlight and condemn the practice. (For what it's worth, however: born in 1976, Kawakami would have been roughly the age of her protagonists at that time.)
There's no question that setting the novel in a pre-Internet and, essentially, pre-mobile-phone, era also allows Kawakami a more focused -- in a sense also: primitive and primal -- presentation of bullying, and how Eyes and Kojima deal with it. Interestingly, the primary means by which Eyes and Kojima communicate much of the time is via 'text' messages -- in this case, handwritten notes they leave for one another.
The novel is set in motion with Eyes discovering an anonymous note left for him suggesting: "We should be friends". The idea that someone is reaching out to him strikes him as so unimaginable that he is certain: "The note had to be a prank". He's only surprised that his tormentors: "would try something so subtle after all this time".
Another note invites Eyes to meet, and when he goes to the rendezvous he discovers that it is Kojima who has been trying to connect. Like him, she is a social pariah in class. She never speaks at school, and looks like she comes from a poor household -- though in fact her stepfather is rich (i.e. it is her choice to present herself the way she does).
Even after this meeting, the two do not interact at school, but they do leave messages for each other, writing letters back and forth that they stick under each other's desks. As Eyes explains:
We only ever wrote about unimportant things, but over time we came to understand each other. [...] We never made a rule about it, but neither of us said a word about school or being bullied.They do occasionally meet in person, too, and early on Kojima invites Eyes to see something special when the school semester is over -- 'Heaven', she explains to him. She leads him to a museum, explaining that 'Heaven' is a painting. She describes the painting to him, both what is depicted and what she sees in it, but, tellingly, never actually brings Eyes far enough into the museum to see it. Her interpretation of it does, however, begin to explain how she processes and deals with what happens to her at school.
Kojima's attitude at school stems in part from her family situation, her mother having abandoned her father, a hard-working man who never managed to find much success and whom Kojima still adores. Now living with her mother and a hated -- but rich -- stepfather, Kojima relates much more to her father and his situation, getting by in great poverty. She tells Eyes how her mother admitted she married him out of pity; what Kojima resents is that her mother couldn't keep it up, bailing for the creature comforts that her new relationship offers.
Kojima clearly does have some difficulties processing her situation, manifesting itself in cutting -- she carries around scissors, and while she doesn't so much cut herself she does snip away at various things -- and eventually an eating disorder; she also becomes indifferent about physical hygiene. Eyes' efforts at escapism are much simpler and don't extend much beyond staying home from school at times; he also can tell himself that the reason he is bullied is a simple and obvious one: "My eye was behind all my problems".
Kojima is the one person who likes the way his lazy eye is, marking him as different and, to her, special. It seems a bit odd that for years no medical professional suggested Eyes get his lazy eye operated on, or that his family hadn't looked into this more. (Eventually one reason why nothing was done is offered, but it still seems strange that this wasn't at least discussed more often.) They had tried to fix it when he was very young, but it didn't take; still the operation is simple and, as it turns out, cheap and Kojima suddenly finds himself with the possibility of changing everything. Among the costs, however, are his relationship with Kojima, who is disappointed that he would even consider becoming 'normal' -- understanding also that: "Then they'll leave you alone. And if that's what you want, there's nothing I can say, nothing I can do". (Of course that's what he wants; among the barriers that always remain between him and Kojima is that, unlike him, she has never been looking for a way out (while long seeing in him a kindred spirit, even in this regard).)
Heaven comes with an epigraph from Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, which should perhaps make clear to the reader from the start that this is no YA adolescent tale. Yes, the protagonists are young teenagers, but the real themes of the novel are adult. Eyes' life is made miserable by the bullying he faces; he can tell himself that his lazy eye is to blame, but Kawakami confronts him with two explanations that go much further, exploring and considering the very essence of the human condition.
Kojima embraces her victimhood -- and thinks that Eyes has as well. She almost makes a martyrdom out of it. They could fight back, after all, but choose not to; they fell into a passive, accepting role and do nothing to break out of it. She even finds validation in it: as she tells Eyes: "What matters is that all the pain and all the sadness have meaning". (Sadly, Kojima's philosophy remains a popular one .....) She goes so far to argue that their experience makes them better:
You think about how other people feel. You're so kind. It makes sense. Because we're always in pain, we know exactly what it means to hurt someone else.Later, she suggests:
Maybe we are weak, in a way. But that's not a bad thing. If we're weak, our weakness has real meaning. We may be weak, but we get it. We know what's important, and we know what's wrong.Her rationalization isn't desperate but rather a worldview she has completely bought into and can find satisfaction in. (At this point, some readers might wonder whether that 'Heaven'-painting isn't really one of an arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian .....) Much as Eyes feels for Kojima, there is always a barrier between them, and no small part of it is that he finds himself unable to go down this same road.
Eyes is also presented with a different way of seeing things, when he confronts one of Ninomiya's henchmen, the calm and cool Momose who isn't the least apologetic about their treatment of Eyes. His worldview is deeply nihilistic: "Does anything in the world ever happen for a reason ? Pretty sure the answer's no". He doesn't even allow Eyes the lazy-eye excuse for his mistreatment, arguing -- with a shrug -- that it's much simpler (and much more random) than that:
It couldn't be any simpler than that. People do what they can get away with."Neither Kojima nor Momose's worldview is particularly reässuring to Eyes -- but Kawakami offers him a way out: his eye is to blame. It's too early to tell whether everything will change with the normalizing operation, but from the doctor who radiates optimism to the moving, eye-opening final scene it's implied that the quick-fix will indeed be a comprehensive, life-altering one. The cheerful doctor, for one, is convinced:
"You're so young. You have your whole life ahead of you. If the surgery's successful, you'll adjust to you new eyes in no time. Before long," he laughed, "you won't even remember what it was like."Eyes, of course, is wondering just how much can be pushed from his mind -- not so much his years of limited vision but rather of the abuse he has endured -- and Kawakami suggests: quite a bit. The operation promises the escapism he's always sought -- and it looks like it will deliver. Kojima, meanwhile, is left behind (well, carried away, out of his life), after the novel's horrific culminating bullying attack; Eyes sighs: "I never had another friend like her. She was the only one", but her fate is left entirely open-ended.
Kawakami uses Eyes and Kojima's torment very effectively to build up her story -- even if Eyes' lazy eye is then too easy a fall-back explanation and allows for too simplistic a resolution (hey, he can see clearly ...). Eyes voice is convincing -- though one of the weaknesses of the novel is that the thinking both Kojima and Momose lay out comes across as too adult. Their words might express thoughts adolescents are capable of -- indeed, often indulge in -- but they're rather too crisply and maturely expressed and on point. (Other aspects of the novel also confusingly blur the adult-child line: no one seems to think twice about sending the well-under-18 Eyes off to hospital all on his own -- and an attending doctor has no problem prescribing pain pills with no more than the causal warning about not taking too many ..... Surely in most countries nothing like this would be possible without a ton of parental signatures and oversight.)
Kawakami tells her story well -- indeed, there's some remarkable writing here, not least in the soaring finale. Parts, and much of the subject matter, can be hard to take, but in its use of bullying as the basis more for philosophical discussion of issues extending far beyond it makes it more bearable. The resolution can seem a bit pat; arguably, the writing is almost too good here, obscuring the fact that Kawakami is taking the really easy way out here -- but perhaps she felt that that's what was necessary, given the dark places and worldviews she led readers down along the way here .....
Appealingly thought-provoking, Heaven is a very solid novel by a talented writer.
- M.A.Orthofer, 7 June 2021
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Japanese author Kawakami Mieko (川上未映子) was born in 1976.
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