Have you allowed yourself to forget, perhaps for the purposes of survival, the intense clarity with which you saw the world at 14? ... The Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami has not forgotten ... Reading the notes they pass to each other evokes the same hot flush of shame as stumbling upon one’s own letters from that age ... Impeccably translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, the book is full of masterly set pieces of violence, scenes of senseless bullying so lucid you can almost feel the pain yourself. To call these moments cinematic is perhaps to do them an injustice ... But the dissonances of the novel align into perfect vision for the breathtaking ending, which is an argument in favor of meaning, of beauty, of life. It is rare for a writer as complex as Kawakami to be so unafraid of closure, to be as capable of satisfying, profound resolution.
Heaven is a raw, painful, and tender portrait of adolescent misery, reminiscent of both Elena Ferrante's fiction and Bo Burnham's 2018 film Eighth Grade. I cannot, in good conscience, endorse it without a warning: This book is very likely to make you cry ... If Kawakami were a more conventional or sentimental writer, Kojima would be the narrator's first love. Instead, she occupies a blurrier space in his life: Their friendship is intermittent and baffling, rooted less in their personal connection than in Kojima's brittle teenage idealism ... This trajectory is unusual: How many novels about bullying, or about adolescents, end with liberation via nihilism? In Heaven, though, the narrator's embrace of meaninglessness seems, much like his friendship with Kojima, to be a necessary but impermanent developmental stage.
In an age of voice-driven fiction, the phrase 'novel of ideas' has an unavoidably dusty ring. It summons the drowsy cadence of the philosopher, the tedious rehearsal of concepts on loan from antiquated sources ... Yet Kawakami is interested neither in demonstrating what makes people good nor in delighting in their antisocial perversities. Rather, her project is, like Nietzsche’s, a genealogical one ... Kawakami never evangelizes, never wags a finger. She simply sets first-person narrations of suffering alongside stumbling dialogues, attempts to make that suffering intelligible to others ... Heaven also models a rigorous and elegant process of inquiry that can transcend its pared-down fictional world. It agitates against the enduring idea that the best novels concern themselves with the singular minds and manners of people, offering no resources for the political and moral demands of 'real life.'
... a swift nine-chapter story whose second half grows oppressively dark and humorless, the narrator's terror radiating off the page, the children from the initial chapters subsumed almost entirely in polemic ... Both tracts that Kawakami treads—the well-crafted narrative as well as the aspirational philosophizing—deserve exploration, particularly by such a skilled author. But the ambiguous focus of Heaven makes it a rather frustrating experience as a novella. The text feels both overly formulated and half-formed, the story that initially draws readers in almost a charade. The extreme violence and Kojima's submission-is-strength arc may cause some to abandon the book. And those who do finish it may find the brief final chapter utterly jarring ... These ideas are disquieting, and being forced to confront them is devastating. But maybe making you watch is Kawakami's real coup in this flawed but vital work.
Heaven is excruciating. Readers share viscerally in the protagonist’s victimization at the hands of sadistic bullies ... Heaven’s bullying is all the more real to the reader because of Kawakami’s descriptions, vividly rendered into English by translators Sam Bett and David Boyd ... The psychological tension of the novel lies in the narrator’s responses to the world views Kojima and Momose propose.
... some of the most violent and disturbing scenes you’re likely to read this year ... It’s left to the reader to decide whether the bully’s indifference to his victim’s pain is a symptom of terrifying emotional numbness or whether it contains wisdom. Kawakami’s novel undermines our moral assumptions and leaves us unsure what to think about the way its characters behave ... [a] short but assured novel. By the end, the reader is so dizzily absorbed in its visceral details and philosophical complexity that, when the twist comes, it hits you with a strange and unexpected force.
To read Heaven... is to bear witness to an unrelenting horror film of one boy’s youth ... The evocation of paradise lingers through their summer outing, which pulses with life, hope and feeling. But from the very beginning, foreboding looms over the friendship ... The torture porn in the book, reminiscent of novels such as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life trap the reader, and even moments of tenderness between Kojima and the narrator brim with a painful tension. This makes reading Heaven feel like there’s a beautiful, cruel teenage boy sitting on your chest, carelessly tossing his perfect hair while you are slowly suffocated by your own helplessness.
Mieko Kawakami refuses to trivialize the agony of adolescence; instead she bears witness to it ... The author’s ability to mimic the rhythmic disturbances of a teenage mind is mesmerizing; she is a master of the interior voice. She instinctively grasps how one can feel silly and light one moment and be in the throes of anguish the next ... Kawakami keeps a cool control over her protagonist, allowing him some leeway but never permitting him to see the promised land of adult perception, freedom, and reflection. There is something about her prose that is so immediate and pressing it blocks out the future almost as if it were a threatening force.
Kawakami’s (Breasts and Eggs, 2020) powerful and unassuming novel explores horrific accounts of bullying in a Japanese school ... Kawakami’s depiction of cruelty among youths is raw and vivid ... Her sensitive, evocative storytelling sets her apart as an incredible literary talent.
Though the monologues in Heaven investigate the human condition, they aren’t dry. They ground the novel in the messy rawness of adolescence ... Kojima is unpolished, and sometimes even frustratingly imprecise, but the vulnerability in these conversations cements this friendship as once-in-a-lifetime. And the certainty and passion in Kojima’s voice fascinate. She is resilient, making her a perfect foil for a narrator convinced of his own weakness. Heaven provokes both contemplation and instinctual dread. However much we may want to pull away, Kawakami drags us into the narrator’s increasingly brutal encounters ... Heaven has more to say about what it feels like to live than about what life means. The novel’s climax, which begins as yet another bullying session, is painful, ecstatic, dreamlike, and—finally—transformative. We might reread the culminating scene multiple times, surfacing more meaning and discomfort in each pass. We’ll find no answers, but we will marvel at how thoroughly Kawakami has succeeded at touching truth.
A highly interior novel, Heaven locks us in, maybe even traps us, in the viewpoint of its unnamed 14-year-old protagonist ... Kawakami really makes us feel his urge to look down, to make himself small, so as not to attract unwanted attention ... Heaven is written in a direct, unadorned style; the language is so straightforward, verging on plain, that the depictions of bullying seem shockingly brutal and yet, for the narrator, blandly normalized—almost a reportage, one fact after another ... The prose evolves throughout the novel, as if tracking the rising action ... Heaven doesn’t lend itself to easy conclusions. Even its denouement feels fraught, as if we are betraying something in ourselves by going along with it. In a novel where violent pressures force the narrator to change, our acquiescence feels like giving up on our own capacity to rebel, to doubt our ability to escape an unfair fate. Kawakami never lets us settle comfortably, which is a testament to her storytelling power. Long after finishing the novel, I find myself recalling its harrowing details and troubling contradictions.
Kawakami uses Eyes and Kojima's torment very effectively to build up her story—even if Eyes' lazy eye is then too easy a fall-back explanation and allows for too simplistic a resolution ... Eyes's voice is convincing—though one of the weaknesses of the novel is that the thinking both Kojima and Momose lay out comes across as too adult. Their words might express thoughts adolescents are capable of—indeed, often indulge in—but they're rather too crisply and maturely expressed and on point ... Kawakami tells her story well—indeed, there's some remarkable writing here, not least in the soaring finale. Parts, and much of the subject matter, can be hard to take, but in its use of bullying as the basis more for philosophical discussion of issues extending far beyond it makes it more bearable. The resolution can seem a bit pat; arguably, the writing is almost too good here, obscuring the fact that Kawakami is taking the really easy way out here ... Appealingly thought-provoking, Heaven is a very solid novel by a talented writer.
Heaven’s exploration of casual cruelty won’t be for everyone—there are passages which rival Stephen King in their depiction of young characters’ depravity—but the short novel is a poignant and unsettling look at what makes a friendship and, on a macro level, what makes an unequal society. Kawakami’s writing is meticulous and assured, and Heaven leaves a bruise.
High in depraved spectacle yet filled with compassion and understanding, Heaven manages to both push the reader away while also pulling them closer, creating a richly layered analysis of social structures and the roles we may, unwillingly, play within them. It is not an easy read and several times I found myself needing a break to recover from a particularly grisly piece of bullying. It is not so much that the book is shocking in its depiction of physical violence, although there are moments of this, rather that Kawakami’s characters are created with such keen psychological insight that I often felt I was the one wearing the physical bruises and psychological scars. To put it simply, Heaven is Kawakami’s best novel to date and one of the best I have read in recent memory. I find myself often reflecting on its characters during my own social interactions, reminding me of the power of kindness and the value of empathy.
Heaven begins on a sensitive and somewhat happy note of friendship, where the two pariahs find comfort in each other’s words. But as the story progresses, a deeply disturbing sequence of events begin to play out ... In Heaven, Kawakami contributes to the conversation on high-school bullying. On the surface are the intense, graphic details of the actual abuse. Underneath the physical suffering, there are layers internalized anxiety. As a reader, you find yourself praying with every turn of the page that it doesn’t get worse. But it does, leaving you sad and helpless ... It is necessary to have conversations around mental health and well being. A book like Heaven might be difficult to read, but it is important, timely, and necessary.
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 ... 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.
Kawakami has a unique knack for burrowing into discomfort, and she does it in a startlingly graceful way ... Kawakami manages to pull us further in, illuminating the perils within the social structures we’ve been taught to trust. An unexpected classic.
[A] searing account of bullying and adolescent angst ... Kawakami unflinchingly takes the reader through the abyss of depraved, dehumanizing behavior with keen psychological insight, brilliant sensitivity, and compassionate understanding. With this, the author’s star continues to rise.