By Sharanya Gopinathan
This reviewer named Tony called it Young Adult fiction. The Financial Times called it a love story, but then The Literary Sisters declared that this is “not at all a love story and was never intended to be one”. They think it’s a coming of age novella instead. Whatever it is, Ms Ice Sandwich is really very satisfying.
Actually, scratch that. Whatever else it may or may not be, Ms Ice Sandwich is a love story, because love stories look like this too.
I’d been keeping an eye out for Ms Ice Sandwich after annual Nobel Prize just-miss Haruki Murakami recently said that this was a new novella he was particularly looking forward to reading, and that Kawakami was his “favourite young novelist”. He described her work to LitHub in October 2017 prettily and thusly, “Like a tree can be counted on to grow tall, reaching for the sky, like a river can be counted on to flow towards the sea, Mieko Kawakami is always ceaselessly growing and evolving.” I didn’t know then, that Kawakami was a young Japanese author and poet with a formidable reputation (she won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s top award for new fiction writers for her second novella, Breasts and Egg), and also that she had actually been a singer-songwriter until her literary debut in 2006.
Her new novella, translated into English by Louise Heal Kawai, Ms Ice Sandwich tells the deceptively simple story of an unnamed young boy in sweet childhood love with a woman who sells sandwiches at the store. He christens her Ms Ice Sandwich, as children do, because of the layer of thick, ice-blue liner on her eyelid. He thinks she’s just beautiful, and he buys sandwiches from her every day. He tells us what happens when he looks at her, describing a hot lump he feels under his chin, “and that lump begins to move from my throat and travel slowly, slowly all the way downwards, until it ends up in a bigger place, a kind of open, roomy space – a place soft like a rabbit’s ear.” He goes to see her every day, until he hears a man speak rudely to her, commenting on her botched plastic surgery. Something about this interaction scares him badly, and he stays away for a while, until his best friend Tutti convinces him to go see her again.
It’s so finely crafted, every few lines could be a haiku, and you almost forget how difficult it must have been to create something so perfectly simple. And when you notice the clarity, meditativeness, eccentricity, quirk and wit in her writing, you immediately understand how Murakami could be inspired by a writer like this. If they’re anything like Kawakami, we’re more than happy to continue taking book recommendations from Murakami.
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