Books - International Booker Prize Shortlist: Heaven

Tony Cross is reading all the books on the International Booker Prize shortlist ahead of this year's awards on 26th May. Here are his thoughts on Heaven by Meiko Kawakami, translated by Samuel Bett and David Boyd...

This was a hard book to read. Not because it was badly written or long, but because the experiences of the two central characters at the hands of school bullies verges on torture. I was bullied - a little - at school. Certainly not to the degree that the narrator and Kojima are. But it still provided some nasty flashbacks. And the central quandary that the characters seem to explore - whether putting up with the abuse and surviving is a victory or whether you should fight back - feels horribly real to me. Even now.

Our male narrator, who doesn't get a name - unless I missed it - has a lazy eye and is the butt of Ninomiya's bullying. Ninomiya comes, like most bullies, with a gang. I always think it is these people who are the worst. The hangers on. Supporting the worst thug in the hope that it will mean that they don't get bullied themselves. The narrator starts getting letters at school suggesting friendship. This letter writer turns out to be Kojima who is the girl who gets bullied by the other girls.

I don’t know how true this is but from books and films you get the impression that Japanese schools are utterly brutal. It might not be true. Perhaps all education systems have the same problems. Bullies exist everywhere but in Japanese books and films they seem to be exceptionally sadistic and vicious.

In a book by a different, less interesting author, Kojima would turn out to be the narrator's first love but there's something much more complex going on. She's almost his own, personal Jesus. (Sorry.) Preaching a kind of martyrdom in the face of the ongoing hostility and dealing with it in the best way possible.

The book is really about the narrator distancing himself from Kojima's 'martyrdom' and realising that it isn't a code he can live by. He comes close to suicide. He decides to do something about his lazy eye, which is effectively where the breach with Kojima comes. She thinks his eyes are what makes him who he is and that he shouldn't change them. Kojima seems to want nothing to change. But her life has been a difficult one, which we find out as the book goes on, and her choices are built on that.

It's a short, powerful book that touched the bullied 12-year-old part of myself deeply and I remember how lonely it would feel. In the end it stopped. There were easier targets and I got good at snark. But for a while it wasn't nice. Kids are cruel. More so than adults a lot of the time.

This is translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd from the Japanese. I've said before it is hard to judge a translation if you aren't fluent in the original language. The difficulty of balancing the meaning and the style is an art as well as a craft. I can only go on instinct and this feels 'right'.

As usual when I get to the end of a review I wonder if I've totally misunderstood a book. But if that's true then my misunderstanding is my understanding and now you all can read it and then go read the book and tell me how wrong I am.

Follow Tony on Twitter at @Lokster71

Image - Amazon

The 2022 International Booker Prize celebrates the finest fiction from around the world, translated into English.

The 2022 shortlist is:

Elena Knows, written by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle from Spanish; published by Charco Press - Find the book on Amazon
Cursed Bunny, written by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur from Korean; published by Honford Star Find the book on Amazon
A New Name Septology VI-VII, written by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian; published by Fizcarraldo 
Find the book on Amazon
Heaven, written by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Samuel Bett and David Boyd from Japanese; published by Pan Macmillan, Picador 
Find the book on Amazon
Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell from Hindi; published by Tilted Axis Press 
Find the book on Amazon
The Books of Jacob, written by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from Polish; published by Fitzcarraldo Editions 
Find the book on Amazon

The 2022 International Booker Prize winner will be announced on 26th May 2022.
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