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“It’s Heaven, the place I want to show you.”


John’s Review:

Heaven is Mieko Kawakami’s heartbreaking novel about middle-school bullying. Originally published in Japan in 2009, Heaven was translated into English in 2021 following the success of Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (2019), which released in 2020 in the anglophone world. I recently had the pleasure of buddy reading Heaven with the wonderful Tori Tecken and offer my thoughts below. Tori’s review immediately follows.

Heaven takes place in 1991 and is narrated by an unnamed fourteen-year-old boy who is subjected to a horrifying level of bullying at school. A glimmer of hope appears in the form of secret notes left by his classmate, Kojima, a shy girl who endures an equally dreadful amount of bullying from her female classmates.

The relationship between Kojima and the narrator forms the emotional core of the novel as they seek to console each other and find meaning in suffering:

“What matters is that all the pain and all the sadness have meaning.”

There is an enduring yet endearing awkwardness in their relationship, which spans the entire novel.

The theme of broken homes also hits hard for both protagonists in Heaven. All the adults in their lives seem oblivious to their suffering. There is also an undercurrent of colorism in how the darker-skinned Kojima is treated at school.

I love Mieko Kawakami’s simple yet poetic writing style and the honest way in which she captures emotion. Kawakami’s sparse yet incisive prose recalls that of Banana Yoshimoto, another one of my favorite Japanese authors. Kawakami’s representation of pain is especially poignant:

“People are different, though. Sometimes you can’t see the scars. But there’s a lot of pain, I think.”

For me, the cruelty exhibited in Heaven hits especially hard given its real-world setting and the bullying I personally experienced as a student (which was not nearly as bad as in the book).

Mieko Kawakami frames bullying as part of a greater philosophical clash between existentialism and nihilism. One of the bullies, Momose, spews nihilistic arguments about the absence of meaning in the world. The complete lack of morality and unchecked abuse from the bullies reminded me a bit of William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies.

Altogether, Heaven is a deeply emotional and thought-provoking read which offers an unflinchingly honest representation of adolescent bullying. Readers should be aware of multiple trigger warnings, including physical and emotional abuse, major depression, suicidal thoughts, and sexual bullying.

HeavenTori’s Review: 

“… this is my normal. And if I don’t hold onto it, it’s like everything is going to fall apart, for real.”

Stories that deal with the thematic issues of bullying, trauma and the struggles of finding yourself in teenage years are not rare. But the story that Mieko Kawakami tells in Heaven is one that transcends the commonly used emotional angst and sensationalism, and instead invites the reader into a simple, straightforward narrative that allows its protagonists to be heartbreakingly real.

Our young narrator, a schoolboy in Japan, clings to his broken identity amidst the abuse of his peers, which continues ad nauseum despite his efforts to elicit as little reaction as possible. An unlikely friendship forms when he begins receiving notes from another student in the classroom, one who can understand better than the rest how agonizing his days have become.

“Something really painful happened to them. Something really, really sad. But know what? They made it through. That’s why they can live in perfect harmony. After everything, after all the pain, they made it here. It looks like a normal room, but it’s really Heaven.”

Heaven transcends written words and asks us to come into a room and look into a mirror. It asks us to see and understand the suffering of people outside of ourselves, to examine our beliefs and our sympathies. Kawakami’s pragmatic prose sets a stark backdrop to this tragic story of friendship forged out of desperation and pain.

I often come away from stories like this with an aftertaste like eating a too-sugary dessert, as if the flavor of what I’ve consumed was buried beneath an excess of unnecessary romanticization. What I found here, however, was a simple story of young people trying to scrape together the pieces of themselves to share human connection and love, while facing horrific abuse perpetrated by their peers and enabled by the blind eyes of the adults around them.

Our protagonist and his friend Kojima have the strength to imagine a world beyond what they have suffered. Their internal search for the purpose of their lives despite the abuse is powerful and invites the reader to ponder the beauty of their lives. It gives the true strength back to the seekers, the dreamers, and the survivors.

“But it isn’t meaningless. When it’s all over, we’ll reach a place, somewhere or something we could never reach without having gone through everything we’ve gone through. Know what I mean?”









John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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