If you are an avid reader, you might have been called a nerd growing up. While bookworms rightfully consider this a compliment, bullies who wield the term usually have more malicious intentions. In Mieko Kawakami’s new novel, Heaven, protagonist Eyes experiences much worse than name-calling. He is slapped, punched, kicked, forced to eat chalk and a goldfish, and made to drink toilet water and pond water.
Eyes, who is so named by his peers for his lazy eye, undergoes all of this torment with resignation until the day he receives a note. A girl in his class named Kojima—dubbed “Hazmat” by their cruel classmates—decides that she and Eyes ought to be friends. They form an epistolary bond at first, taking solace in exchanging letters during torturous school days, but eventually they meet and embark on an emotional inquiry into their suffering.
A large part of the narrative is devoted to the excruciating details of Eyes’ and Kojima’s abuse. When Eyes is forced to eat scraps of food from a rabbit cage, readers feel both his anguish and his helplessness at the hands of his classmates. Some readers may categorize these unsparing scenes as trauma porn, but the heart of the book lies in its examination of these events. Why do the two 14-year-olds’ peers treat them with such malice? Where does the dynamic of perpetrator and victim come from? How should one respond to such treatment?
While Kawakami refuses to give us answers, the elegance and care with which she describes her characters’ lives invite the reader to ask such questions of themselves. This is not a cruel story, but rather one that understands hurt and pain for what it is: universal, unjust and material for new life.