Kawakami's novel is told in the voice of a 14-year-old student subjected to relentless torment for having a lazy eye. Instead of resisting, the boy chooses to suffer in complete resignation. The only person who understands what he is going through is a female classmate who suffers similar treatment at the hands of her tormenters.
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.
... 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.