For the teenage protagonist of Heaven, life is hell.
We never learn his name, only the cruel nickname he’s been given by his classmates in middle school: Eyes. His “lazy eye” has minor effects on his vision but a major effect on his life, making him the target of vicious bullies.
Endlessly taunted and pranked, beaten and kicked, 14-year-old Eyes feels alone in the world until the day he finds a tiny note tucked into his desk: “We should be friends.”
That note propels the action of Mieko Kawakami’s moving and surprising novel.
Kawakami is a bestselling and award-winning author in her native Japan. Her books have been widely translated but only recently published in the United States. Her 2008 novel, Breasts and Eggs, was published here in 2020 and named a New York Times Notable Book. Now we have Heaven, which came out in Japan in 2009. (Both novels were translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd.)
Heaven’s setting isn’t specified, although it seems to be a smaller city or town in Japan rather than a megalopolis like Tokyo — and this story could happen anywhere. The physical setting may be generic, but the era is not: Kawakami sets the novel in 1991. That means her teenage characters live in a world with no smartphones, no social media, no cyberbullying.
But bullies don’t really need technology to do their dirty work. Eyes’ tormentors like the hands-on approach anyway.
Their leader is Ninomiya. He’s the most popular boy in school, handsome, athletic, witty and such an accomplished student not even the teachers can keep up with him. With his silent henchman Momose and a gaggle of nameless minions, Ninomiya stuffs Eyes into lockers, fills his desk with garbage and forces him to eat chalk and drink toilet water.
Their teachers seem oblivious; in Eyes’ first-person narration, they hardly seem to exist. There’s no succor for him at home, either. He’s an only child whose stepmother is kind but seems to suffer from depression. His father is mostly absent and not really present when he is home: “At the table,” Eyes tells us, “the TV did all the talking, a labor-saving device just like the dishwasher, freeing us from any obligation to converse.”
Eyes, though, is resolutely without self-pity. He seems to accept what happens to him with stoic resignation and a dry sense of humor. But that note is a lifeline, and he reacts to it with the intensity of emotion that marks early adolescence.
The note is from Kojima, a girl in his class who is another punching bag for the bullies. She rarely bathes, her hair is a mess, her school uniform wrinkled and dirty and her sneakers so soiled there’s not a white spot left on them.
Kojima and Eyes communicate tentatively, first entirely with notes, then with a meeting in a small park far from where they live. Being a victim has made Kojima passionate about morality and justice, not just as they apply to her but as larger concepts, and Eyes is impressed by her insights.
The pair find meeting places, and eventually Kojima takes him on a dreamlike trip out of the city by train to an art museum that dazzles his senses, even though they never make it far enough to see the painting Kojima is obsessed with and that gives the novel its name.
It is, she tells Eyes, “a painting of two lovers eating cake in a room with a red carpet and a table. It’s so beautiful. … Something really painful happened to them. Something really, really sad. But know what? They made it through.”
The two keep their friendship a secret, fearing it will draw more intense bullying. When Eyes suffers his worst beating yet, turned into a “human soccer ball” by Ninomiya and his little mob — an ordeal that Kawakami describes in agonizing detail ― it’s Kojima who comes to his aid afterward.
But few things are what they seem. Eyes, like his classmates, has assumed that Kojima’s poor hygiene is a marker of poverty. When he learns that her stepfather is wealthy, a new web of complexities spins around their relationship that will lead to the novel’s shocking climax.
In Kawakami’s hands, bullying becomes a way to examine such concepts as power, status and the nature of evil. They’re natural concerns for her characters, who are at the age when for many people the unfairness of the world first becomes glaringly obvious and nearly unbearable.
We grow up and learn to turn a lazy eye on cruelty and injustice, but Heaven brings them acutely into focus.
By Mieko Kawakami
Europa Editions, 190 pages, $23
Mieko Kawakami will be in virtual conversation with Times book editor Colette Bancroft at 8 p.m. June 24. To participate in this ticketed event, purchase a copy of either Heaven or Breasts and Eggs from Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, or tombolobooks.com. A Zoom link will be sent to you the day before the event.