A review of Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs
By Elena Schnee
Have you ever heard of a woman giving birth to a book? No? But what is actually the difference between creating new life and creating a new work of art? How are womanhood, motherhood, and authorship intertwined, what impact do they have one on another and do they maybe exclude each other? These are some of the questions that the Japanese bestselling author Mieko Kawakami raises in her first book translated into English, Breasts and Eggs.
The novel is divided into two parts, of which the first was originally published in 2008 and tells the story of three women struggling with the implications of womanhood. The narrator Natsuko meets with her middle-aged sister Makiko and her almost-teenaged niece Midoriko on a warm summer day in Tokyo. While Makiko is struggling with her aging body and can talk about nothing else but her plan of getting a breast-enhancement surgery, Midoriko herself is trying to cope with the fears of growing up and becoming a woman. She is incapable of expressing her feelings towards her entourage and communicates in a written language only. A tragic mother-daughter conflict develops. In between those two stands Natsuko, an aspiring writer, who is unable to move on with her unfinished novel. During the two sisters’ short period living together in Tokyo, the reader gets deeper insights into their past loss, and their anxieties and fears that each of them struggles through as a woman.
The second part of the novel takes place ten years in the future and centers around Natsuko, who has become a successful novelist but is once again left behind by the muses. She cannot finalize her latest manuscript. Having aged, she suddenly feels the need to become a mother herself. But repulsed by the thought of sharing her bed with a man, she considers the possibility of artificial insemination. In doing so she gets in touch with Aizawa, a man her age that not only enlightens her about the burden of test-tube babies, but also offers her the possibility of new love.
By letting Natsuko decide to make a baby with Aizawa and raise their child on her own –the baby was eventually created through artificial insemination– Kawakami persistently sends every male character that might be of importance for the progress of the story immediately off the stage again. In plain but agile prose, Kawakami gives homage to womanhood by presenting the reader with strong, independent female characters without being afraid of showing their shady sides too. Since women undergo a far more distinctive change of their looks than men do, they easily get reduced to their bodies, to breasts and eggs. This is shown to the reader in a distressing way within the scope of the first part of the book.
In the second half of the story, however, the reader encounters further elaborated prospects of womanhood. Natzuko finds herself in the middle of the book in a doubled and ambiguous creative block. Neither is she able to perform as a writer and finish her novel, nor is she – though physically able – to create a new life and therefore performing as a normative woman. But what is a writer that does not write, and what is a woman that does not reproduce? Is she even a writer? Or a woman? What is a woman anyway? As Kawakami writes, “THIS IS IMPORTANT … THERE ARE NO MEN AND NO WOMEN AND NOTHING ELSE.” It certainly is not easy to answer these questions; the asking, however, seems of particular importance.
Kawakami ultimately raises the question of how motherhood and authorship are intertwined, how they can fertilize each other, and even what they might have in common. We all have read Simone de Beauvoir and know what being a mother does to a woman. Mieko Kawakami tells us on her part what being a mother, or the emerging wish of becoming a mother, can do to a writer.
Natsuko – who is described as having some androgynous, asexual features – has taken over all the domains formerly reserved for men. Not only is she a successful writer in a society where women still feel hindered in their free expression, but she also rids herself from the need for sexual interaction with a man in order to reproduce. Not even the love she feels towards Aizawa is a sufficient reason for her to give him a role in her life as the father of her child.
Carrying a child seems (paradoxically?) to give her independence as a woman and also suggests the end of her other creative block. On the last page of the book, after the actual act of giving birth is done, it also seems like Natsuko is holding a second baby in her arm: a book about womanhood, motherhood and authorship. The struggles that she went through in order to become a mother provide the material she needs for artistic production.
Breasts and Eggs, which is laced with direct speech, amuses the reader through its unpretentious language style (“They were beautiful. I’d go into stores and use their dressing rooms just to look at my own nipples. That part was heaven”), and through the use of short, melodic sentences, it enables a harmonic flow of reading. In the middle of the novel, however, when Natsuko suddenly feels the urgent need to become a mother – which has, as far as the reader knows, never crossed her mind – the plot starts to lose a bit of credibility, in the uncharacteristic persistence of the protagonist to fulfill this need.
Nevertheless, Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs offers the reader plenty of witty conversations, provides a fresh perspective on current debates and poses new questions about womanhood that definitely are worth being asked. Not least, Kawakami clarifies why Socrates declared himself a midwife, so we know that birth can not only be given to babies, but also to thoughts. There always will be labour pains, no matter if they end in another human being or a work of art.
Elena Schnee studied German and French literature at the LMU München and is currently enrolled in the Literature Today Master’s programme at Utrecht University. Her main interests are in intercultural and feminist literature.
Cohen, Alina. “With ‘Breasts and Eggs’, English Readers Get the Chance to Fall for Mieko Kawakami.” The Observer. https://observer.com/2020/04/mieko-kawakami-breasts-and-eggs-review/.
Kawakami, Mieko. Breasts and Eggs. Europa, 2020.
Thien, Madeleine. “‘Breasts and Eggs’ by Mieko Kawakami review – an interrogation of the female condition.” The Guardian. 11 Sept. 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/11/breasts-and-eggs-by-mieko-kawakami-review-an-interrogation-of-the-female-condition.