I like tot think that I’m a big fan of Japanese fiction because I’ve mostly enjoyed everything I’ve ever read by Japanese writers. Of course, I don’t think I actually read enough of it to justify that classification. It’s all just part of a wider issue where I still mainly stick to British or American writers. As part of my plan to improve my range, I picked this beauty up last year. I found it in a bookshop when I was waiting to meet some friends. It was part of their books under 200 pages display which was basically everything I was looking for in a book in 2022. I was fully drawn in because of the bright blue cover and quirky premise. It just sounded like something I would enjoy but that wouldn’t take much work. Of course, it’s taken me almost a year to get around to reading it but better late then never, right?
I don’t tend to read many novellas or short stories because I prefer long-form literature. I like having that extra time to get to grips with the characters and the narrative. It takes a very talented writer to include that much depth and development in a book that’s less than 100 pages. So, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Ms Ice Sandwich. It sounded like my kind of book because I’m a fan of quirky Japanese fiction. I wasn’t sure how connected I would feel to the whole story. Would I connect with the main character in such a small number of pages? It turned out I had no reason to worry because the main character of Mieko Kawakami’s book was delightful.
The narrator is a young boy who lives with his mother and grandmother. He is awkward and isolated. Over the Summer, he became obsessed with a woman who works in his local supermarket. He is drawn to her because of her bright blue eyeshadow. A fact that causes him to name her Ms Ice Sandwich. The boy never talks to the woman but he visits the shop as often as he can. She doesn’t look like anyone he has ever seen before and can’t get her face out of his head. Although, when he hears people criticise his crush, the boy stops visiting the shop.
This might only be a short book but it has plenty to say. The story is about loneliness and isolation. The boy has nobody to talk to besides his grandmother. As she is unable to speak, she can only offer him limited comfort. Instead, she becomes a sounding board for all his inner thoughts. He believes that she understands him but we can’t be sure of that. The boy also forms a tentative friendship with his female classmate Tutti. Like him, she leads an isolated life. Living with her father, Tutti enjoys watching Hollywood movies and acting out gunfights. They are both unusual and find common ground. Yet they never speak to each other at school. Instead, they try and remain under the radar.
We are dealing with a society that values the status quo. People should stick to what society expects or they will suffer. This is about those awkward early years and the difficulty of finding your own identity. It is also a book about loss and how you handle it in your youth. The narrator lost his father at a young age and is watching his grandmother decline. He gets little attention from his mother and feels lost. Ms Ice Sandwich becomes a constant in his life. She is always there carrying out the same routine. Using her metal tongs to pick out his sandwich and put it in a bag. It becomes a routine that he can stick to. She might not give him any attention but he can rely on her.
Ms Ice Sandwich is a complex novella that is full of ideas. It’s a sort of coming of age that introduces us to many important and emotional ideas. The story is bittersweet but absolutely full of charm. It’s difficult to explain what happens but there is plenty to keep you engaged. The stream-of-consciousness narration is beautiful and naive. It really paints a picture of the young boy at the heart of this story. Ms Ice Sandwich is fun and playful but it has real feelings at its core. I really enjoyed reading this book and would happily read more by Mieko Kawakami.
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