‘Breasts and Eggs’ is a sublime meditation on modern womanhood
In an infamous interview in 2017, Mieko Kawakami probed acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami “about the large number of female characters [in his novels] who exist solely to fulfil a sexual function.” It was for this reason alone that I immediately purchased a copy of her latest book, Breasts and Eggs, which is essentially a protest novel against the sexist status quo of contemporary Japanese fiction.
Women exist in many forms in Breasts and Eggs. Our main character, Natsuko, is a thirty-year-old writer living in Tokyo. In Book One she is visited by her older sister Makiko, a hostess lamenting the loss of her youth so much so that she is considering breast enhancement surgery. She arrives with her teenage daughter Midoriko, who has stopped speaking in an attempt to deal introspectively with the pain and confusion of growing into a woman. And through flashbacks we revisit Natsu’s impoverished childhood and emotional development through her relationships with her mother and grandmother.
Book Two takes place eight years later, and Natsu is still growing and evolving with the help of the strong female connections she has accumulated, whilst grappling with her desire to have a child. Women shape her life, and Kawakami is a master of creating compelling female characters that are so authentic it feels as if they could jump right off the page.
If you are looking for a heavily-plotted story, this probably isn’t for you, as the novel unfolds at a gradual pace and contains many digressions – mostly in the form of anecdotes told by characters as they meet Natsu in a vivid assortment of Tokyo locations. Although it may seem as if not much is happening, there are weighty questions about birth and death, loneliness, grief and the place of women in contemporary society bubbling just beneath the surface of the story. There is something uniquely beautiful about the ever-shifting mood of the novel as it undulates between joy and sadness, resistance and acceptance, alienation and intimacy. Natsu is constantly seeking answers and searching for the meaning of her life, and women’s lives, at a time when we are freer to make our own choices than we have ever been before.
The patriarchy is a character always hovering ominously in the background; although the story is based almost entirely around women, there are flashes of male violence and hints of the emotional damage left by men, including Natsu’s father. There are ‘good’ male characters too, most of whom appear near the end of Book Two, but their inclusion is purely functional and if anything, weakens the story. This is perhaps because the feminist core of the novel is so powerful that it obliterates any hope for strong male character development.
Visually and emotionally, Breasts and Eggs is a breath-taking exploration of the female experience, filled with acute questions on the nature of birth, life and death but easily digestible thanks to its dreamy, laid-back pacing. Even its flaws – like the unevenness in tone and few-too-many digressions – add something to its uniqueness; it could’ve been streamlined to be more cohesive but would have lost some of its charm in the process. In essence, it is a book about spiritual growth and the associated pain that comes with it, told through vivid characters and situations grounded in profound truth.