When Makiko rings her younger sister, Natsuko, to tell her that she is going to get breast implants. Natsuko is slightly puzzled, but her initial response is, fine, whatever you want to do. Maybe she thought that Makiko would lose interest and the topic would just die a natural death. However, when Makiko starts ringing after work about 3 times a week telling her that she has made her mind up and is getting them, she starts to become a little more interested, a little more worried perhaps. Makiko is 40 years-old, she has a daughter, who paradoxically is terrified of puberty and the “natural” changes to her body that are approaching. Midoriko is horrified about what her mum wants to do to her body.
Natsuko wonders what her sister hopes to achieve with bigger breasts? What difference is it going to make to her life? Will it improve it?
The second, and much longer part of the book, focuses on Natsuko, 8 years in the future. A brilliant character, with so much going on in her world. It seems she does not view herself as a woman. She hates the physical act of sex, cannot stand somebody else being inside her. She is working on her second novel with a bad case of writer’s block and she is worried that she may die alone.
She feels, but questions herself on this topic as well, that she wants to have a baby. However, she wants to have, and raise, the baby on her own. This leads to her obsession with artificial insemination and sperm donors. Natsuko wants, or does she, a baby without having to endure the trauma that she feels from sex. She ponders, with other characters asking her the question, why does she want this baby? Is it to stave off loneliness in the future? Is it nature, does every woman want to be a mother?
Women in this book are struggling to conform to a standard, or what is considered as normal. But is anybody really “normal”, and more importantly who defines what is normal? Who says that a child must be raised with a male and female parent, who gets to say that a child must be raised by two parents, who says that breasts must be a certain size? We needlessly place these pressures on ourselves and struggle to fit into what society deems “normal”, risking alienation and social ostracism if we do not conform to these standards.
Does the archetypal housewife still exist? I do not believe that men and women have predefined roles anymore. The family unit is changing. Men and women, but particularly women, are finding that it is ok to be single and motherless. This state does not define them as failures.
Another theme is sexual identity. Natsuko constantly questions whether she is a woman, not being able to answer the question. This again leads back to society and conforming. If you are born into the world in a female form, then you are female, but what if you do not feel or believe that yourself? Have we not reached the point where it is our choice to identify how we want to?
An eye raising point for me was the pain felt from the perspective of the person born from artificial insemination. The horrible feeling of lacking identity, the burning desire to find your natural father.
I think that KawaKami uses Natsuko to represent the struggles, fears, insecurities, social and economic, that many women face today. Placing emphasis on sexual identity, motherhood, and conformity. This novel is based in the author’s native Japan, but I think the problems and issues addressed are found everywhere.
It is always interesting to read about other cultures, that are so different from our own. I was fascinated with the communal bathhouses in Tokyo. Something to me that just feels anachronistic, belonging to another era. But that is what is fascinating, we are all so different. It is what makes this world such an amazing and diverse experience.
I love books that leave you wondering, pondering, for days and weeks after you have read them. With this novel I am still thinking about what it must be like for a woman to have this primal urge to have a baby, to be a mother. But does every woman feel this urge? Is motherhood ingrained in a woman’s DNA?
A thoroughly enjoyable read. 4 Stars.
Mieko Kawakami was born in 1976 in Osaka. She started her career as a singer-songwriter, producing three albums. She then wrote a prose-poem. Her first novella My Ego Ratio, My Teeth, and the World won the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers.