Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven, first published in Japan in 2009, is a study of myopia and blindness that tracks the evolving relationship between two vulnerable teenagers. It opens with an anonymous letter sent to the narrator, nicknamed ‘Eyes’: ‘We should be friends.’ Eyes has strabismus and has spent his life being stared at by strangers and ostracised by his peers; he therefore suspects a trap. He is reassured after discovering that the note’s author is his classmate Kojima, a girl nicknamed ‘Hazmat’ because of her irregular washing habits.
The friendship between the two outcasts runs in counterpoint to the violence that takes place at school. Hazmat makes up stories and invents words; in her notes to him, she is ‘energetic and alive, an entirely different person from the girl I saw in class’.
Kawakami explores Japan’s culture of middle-school bullying with studied precision: Eyes is forced to drink pond water and eat sticks of chalk. Ninomiya, his chief tormentor, speaks in a parody of the aspirational language common to Japan’s boardrooms and universities. Just before kicking his head in a game of ‘human