‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ by Mieko Kawakami ****

The second book from Pushkin Press’s Japanese Novellas series which I am going to review today is Ms Ice Sandwich by Kawakami Mieko (yes, she shares the same last name as Kawakami Hiromi whose Record of a Night Too Brief I reviewed last week, but the two authors have no relation whatsoever as far as I am concerned), translated by Louise Heal Kawai.

Ms+Ice+SandwichI had never read anything by Kawakami Mieko before, but I have to admit that this novella caught my interest from the outset. It might have been very brief and left me yearning for more, but I developed an instant liking to her quirky yet utterly captivating writing style.

The story revolves around a young boy whose name and exact age are never really revealed (I’m guessing he’s a junior high schooler but I could be wrong), who has fallen in love with the lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the supermarket. His innocent infatuation drives him to visit her sandwich stand every so often just so he can catch a glimpse of her face. When he descibes the lady, he places specific emphasis on the beautiful characteristics of her face and her “ice-blue eyelids” which earned her the nickname Ms Ice Sandwich.

The only people who know about the boy’s infatuation are his grandma, who is stuck in her bed, unable to move and to whom the protagonist often entrusts his deepest thoughts and feelings, and his best friend from school, Tutti, with who he seems to start developing a deeper relationship as the story progresses. During one of the boy’s visits to Ms Ice Sandwich, he hears one of her customers shouting ugly words at her about her face, which he also happens to overhear from some of his female classmates the day after the event. The author does not really spend any time weaving a mystery around the lady’s face (something which I rather expected to happen), she chooses to focus on the boy’s feelings and perceptions of the woman instead.

Ultimately, this is not at all a love story and it was never supposed to be one. Instead, it is a fascinating, touching and quiet coming-of-age story with a plethora of lessons to be taught and inspiring passages. One of my favourites was from Tutti’s motivational speech to our protagonist:

If you want to see somebody you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them anymore. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.

Another issue this short novella tackles is, of course, difference and how people and the society deal with people who are “different”. While I felt that the author could have expanded a lot more on this issue rather than just leaving it as a side-issue, perhaps nothing more was needed to be said. One thing I have definitely learned from reading Japanese literature is that, sometimes, subtlety is much more powerful.

That brings me to the last thing I want to discuss about this book. The translation was excellent and flowed very naturally, so very much so that at some point I forgot I was reading Japanese and not Anglophone literature. Not having read the original, I cannot know whether that was a feature of the original text itself or whether it was the translator’s magic, but I was quite satisfied with it.

Overall, Ms Ice Sandwich is a very heart-warming and quiet novella about growing up, first love, loss and learning to cope with all these new feelings which inundate kids at that age all of a sudden. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with no exception, as you are certain to gain something upon reading it regardless of your literary preferences.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

13 thoughts on “‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ by Mieko Kawakami ****

  1. This sounds wonderful. It’s one of those times I’m glad I can read Japanese – I want to know how it reads in the original, too! Time to haunt some bookstores 🙂

    • You are absolutely right, Kazen! It’s such an advantage to be able to read in the original language – even more so in Japanese, where the translation can often be entirely different from the original. I’m still rather scared to read novels in Japanese, but I have to try harder!

      • I’m new here and didn’t realize you also know Japanese, that’s awesome! I get through nonfiction okay but novels are their own kind of beast, especially if you’re more used to spoken Japanese. I think no matter how much I study I’ll always be intimidated!

      • Ah, I was absent from the blog for a long time, so don’t worry at all for not noticing! I wholeheartedly agree. Novels are just so much more intimidating than non-fiction, especially with all these kanji they sometimes use and all their unique combinations! I had completed Read Real Japanese Essays and was thinking of purchasing the Short Stories volume as well, but I always give up on short stories so easily 😦

  2. Thank you so much Akylina for your review of Ms Ice Sandwich, particularly your kind words about the translation. We translators often get forgotten by reviewers after we have worked so hard to bring the author’s words to life in a way that captures the feeling of the original. I loved translating this book so much as Mieko Kawakami has a gift for portraying the voices and inner workings of her characters. I’m hoping to have a chance to work on more of her books in the future.

    • Thank you so much for reading my review and leaving such a kind comment, Louise. Unfortunately you are right, translators aren’t given as much attention and credit as they deserve, despite their hard work. I believe your love of the book has really shone through; it was such a delight to read. I’m truly hoping to see more of your translations of Kawakami’s books in the future as well! I will definitely be keeping an eye out for them.

      • Akylina, I’ve just realized for the first time that although I thanked you for your kind comments about the translation, you didn’t actually put my name in your review! Would you mind adding it?

      • I just added it – I should certainly be more careful in adding the translator’s name in my posts. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  3. Pingback: A Quick Thank You to Haruki Murakami for Introducing Us to Mieko KawakamiThe Ladies Finger

  4. Pingback: A Quick Thank You to Haruki Murakami for Introducing Us to Mieko Kawakami – CCTV Installer Near Mear

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