'Breasts and eggs' book review: Being a woman
Mieko Kawakami’s first full-scale novel to be translated from Japanese into English is a rare portrait of contemporary working class womanhood.
In this intimate book, we encounter three women in a poor suburb of Tokyo—30-year-old writer Natsuko, her 39-year-old sister Makiko from Osaka and Makiko’s 12-year-old daughter Midoriko, who for the last six months has been communicating with her mother only through writing. Makiko and Natsuko were brought up by their mother and grandmother—their father was drunk, never worked and beat up their mother. When their caregivers died of cancer, both sisters were forced to work at bars and restaurants in order to earn a living.
Makiko is a single mother who split with her husband when she was pregnant and works at a bar in Shobashi. Her daughter, Midoriko, is anxious when her mother, despairing the loss of her looks, wants to go in for a breast enhancement surgery. “Happiness can be defined all kinds of ways, but human beings, consciously or unconsciously, are always pulling for their own version of happiness.” Midoriko’s journal entries have her pondering among other things about teenage angst in the form of her puberty and periods—and are somewhat reminiscent of Judy Blume’s tone in the 1970 young adult novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Eight years later, as a single woman who wants to have a baby of her own through sperm donation, Natsuko researches all the different challenges involved in the do-it-yourself project. She finds that while infertility treatment using third-party sperm had been happening in Japan for over 60 years, resulting in over 10,000 births, hospitals only treated married couples who had undergone conventional infertility procedures and discovered that the husband was sterile. Unmarried women and same-sex couples who wanted kids were not allowed access to treatment. After poring over tonnes of information on the subject, Natsuko realises that all the books and blogs cater to couples, and that no one had published anything on the experience of a single mother who has used sperm from a volunteer.
She finds, however, that there are websites where men offer their sperm directly, but a vast majority of the children born as a result are in the dark about the circumstances of their birth, tricked by the people closest to them. When Natsuko meets a direct donor, a stranger from the internet, she is not very convinced. Along the way, she finds a friend in Jun Aizawa, himself a child of a donor, and the two begin to share thoughts about their lives, fears and concerns—and soon, develop feelings for each other. Finally, Natsuko has Aizawa’s baby girl through artificial insemination, and decides to raise her on her own.
Singer-songwriter and bestselling author Mieko Kawakami’s first full-scale novel to be translated from Japanese into English is a rare portrait of contemporary working class womanhood in Japan. While sharing Natsuko’s inhibitions and anxieties, Kawakami delves further into various questions about donor conception and surrogacy—subtly highlighting several gender biases and prejudices that exist in Japanese society, and how the country lags behind in the policy debate surrounding reproductive ethics.
The book also consists of a number of snatches of ‘girly conversations’—about everything from men to motherhood, looks and other women. Kawakami’s voice and rhythm is comparable with and often reminds one of the brilliant style of writing of one of Japan’s most celebrated writers, Haruki Murakami.