‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

Tender yet raw, graceful but cutting, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a coming-of-age tale of two young teenagers bullied mercilessly at school.

An unnamed 14 year-old boy – nickname Eyes owing to his suffering from strabismus (unaligned eye direction) – is constantly picked upon, both verbally and physically, by his male classmates. Kojima is in the same class and is bullied by the girls. She begins to leave notes for the boy to arrange to meet. Initially wary of a trap, he eventually agrees.

Two complex teenagers, both from broken homes with their coming together an inevitability. Yet, both victims for so long, there exists a guarded nervousness. The coming together of kindred spirits it’s not. Kojima (nicknamed Hazmat) is oddly evangelical about the punishment meted out. Since her mother’s remarriage to a wealthy stepfather, Kojima has stopped bathing in sympathy with her impoverished father. She refuses not only to bathe herself but also wash her clothing. The other girls in the class react: it’s this reaction that Kojima sees as part of her choice in her affinity to her father. If we’re weak, our weakness has real meaning. Eyes cannot and does not agree. He has chosen to passively accept the bullying rather than react. Yet he wants the corrective eye surgery in the belief that sense of other or difference is the cause.

A relatively short novel, Heaven beautifully explores its themes – a visceral tenderness that is raw in its philosophical musings.

‘After Dark’ by Haruki Murakami

The bewitching hours of night time and early morning hours of the city. Tokyo is quiet – a few late night office workers, a few revellers, a few furtive individuals going about their business. Teenage Mari sits, alone, in an all-night diner, drinking coffee and reading her book. She is interrupted by Takahashi, a young man who recognises her as the sister of the beautiful Eri.

So begins Murakami’s 2004 novel After Dark. It’s a slight yet spellbinding, woven tale as the hours pass from 11.56pm to 6.52am as Mari spends time with Takahashi, helping the attacked Chinese prostitute at a local love hotel or talking to staff after the attack. Takahashi is in town to practice with his band. Eri is asleep and, according to Mari, has been thus for a couple of months (it’s Murakami, remember). And then there’s Shirakawa, the man who attacked the prostitute, working late in his hi-tec world before returning home in the early hours to his sleeping wife and children.

After Dark is a quiet, hushed novel. Mari is awake because Eri is asleep – yet the elder sister is as integral to the narrative as Mari’s comings and goings. We move back and forth between the two sisters – but it’s time spent with the sleeper that upsets the fluidity of Murakami’s novel. Away from Eri’s bed, Tokyo is shown in its mundane early hours. Eri, threatened in her sleep by an omnipotent being, is a voyeuristic experience, an oddball minor science-fiction fantasy, not 100% clear in reasoning or clarity to the development of the narrative.

It glides, it slides – atmosphere, dark and vaguely threatening, is at the core of After Dark. Like trombone-playing Takahashi and his love for the jazz standard, Five Spot After Dark, it’s an easy tempoed narrative, not too challenging, with a few highs and catchy chorus that is stripped right back. It’s not one of Murakami’s best, but even then, it remains an enthralling read.

‘A Woman Called En’ by Tomie Ohara

Set in late seventeenth century Japan, A Woman called En is a perfectly crafted tale of an extended family confined to their home following the father’s fall from political power.

For forty years, En, her mother, brothers, stepmothers, sisters, half sisters and family retainers are held – released only on the death of the third and final brother, thus ensuring the end of the family bloodline. On her release, long dreaming of life elsewhere, En travels with her mother to settle in the town of Taso, home of the clan lord. Educated by her brothers, she finds herself at odds with social expectations, refusing to gain respectability through marriage.

Written in 1960, A Woman called En is a fascinating insight into the times and social norms of feudal Japan. Yet, in spite of the its relative shortness (119 pages), it’s a challenge. Written in the formal classical style of seventeenth century Japan, it’s a dense read, with a miasma of genealogical names, clan lords and histories going back centuries. Kinroku, Kishiro and Teishiro are En’s brothers (interestingly, her sisters and half sisters remain unnamed, with the exception of Seishichi, reflecting the position of women of the time); Kazutoyo, Tadayoshi, Toyafusa and Toyotaka are the Taso clan lords. That list alone causes some mental confusion when reading such a short tale! And there are many, many more characters featured.

‘Norwegian Wood’ by Haruki Murakami

Whilst Norwegian Wood is not my personal favourite Murakami novel, the poignant and nostalgic love story, developed from a short story (Firefly) and set in 1969/70, shot him to superstardom in his native Japan on its publication in 1987 (much to his dismay at the time).

As his Boeing 747 comes into land at Hamburg airport, the playing of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood through the tannoy system sends Toru Watanbe on a trip down memory lane of events twenty years earlier.

A student in Tokyo, Watanbe is far from his family home in Kobe, where his best friend Kizuki, at the age of seventeen, took his own life. A conscious decision to put as many miles between him and the sad events, Watanbe meets, by chance, the beautiful but emotionally fragile Naoko – former girlfriend of Kizuki.

A strange, distant friendship evolves. But Naoko is too unstable (her sister also committed suicide) and is sent to a distant sanatorium by her family. Left in Tokyo, a lonely Watanabe is adrift, an outsider in a world of unequal friendships, casual sex – and an unrequited love for Naoko. An occasional visit to the peaceful solitude of the sanatorium provides him with contact (and where he meets Naoko’s room mate, the older and wiser Reiko). But with the arrival into his life of a lively and impetuous Midori, Watanabe finds himself having to make choices.

Elegant, elegiac and deeply profound, Norwegian Wood is no saccharine-sweet nostalgia trip. Instead, its an urgent attempt to preserve an exquisitely painful time and address, full-frontal, death and grief and abuse – yet with a warmth and gentle, experienced wisdom.