Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

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It starts with a folded message in a pencil case. Despite the narrator’s fears, it is not another trick by the school bullies but the beginning of a secret friendship. The 14 year old narrator is known only as Eyes because of his lazy eye, and he suffers constantly from callous and cruel bullying by Ninomiya, Momose, and their group. The girl, Kojima, dirty and unkempt, on the other side of the classroom, is also kicked and hit by a girls' group. Gradually the two teenagers draw closer through the exchange of secret messages.

Stunning in the beauty of the writing and the creation of the interior world of the two teenagers, Kawakami’s novel is also shocking in its graphic depiction of bullying that is unrelentingly violent and sadistically cruel. It is a world that the two are forced to endure silently every day.

Kojima seeks to make meaning out of their suffering. Almost Christ-like in her attitude she is prepared to accept the violence, because it is wrong, and believes that one day the abusers will come to understand that. She holds onto an idea of Heaven. Juxtaposed with this, is the view expressed by the bully Momose, who believes there is no right or wrong; he is free to do whatever he wants if he feels like it. He says that if there is a Heaven or Hell, it is here right now, this is it. He has absolutely no regard for the feelings of others; Eyes’ words are nothing to him.

So while Kawakami’s novel starts as a story of two lonely suffering friends, as it progresses it becomes more of a philosophical argument between two contrasting world views. Eyes has to work out where he stands. The ending is a surprise, and really throws a challenge as to how to understand it. There is so much to provoke thought and discussion.

Whilst that all may sound bleak and hard to read, there are some really lovely moments in the exchanges between the two friends, and there are adults, a doctor and a step-mother, who turn out to be surprisingly caring.

This is a really unusual book. If you read it, you will be thinking about it for many weeks afterwards. Whilst it tells the story of 14 year olds; because of the content, I would put the readership at 16 and over. And Kawakami is definitely an author to look out for.

Themes: Bullying, Violence, Suffering, Philosophy.

Helen Eddy