Ms Ice Sandwich, Mieko Kawakami: Book Review

Exploring prejudice through a young boy's eyes.

ms ice sandwich mieko kawakami book reviewPushkin Press/Straits Times
Ms Ice Sandwich Book Cover Ms Ice Sandwich
Mieko Kawakami
Adult Fiction, Contemporary, Novella
Pushkin Press
January 23, 2018
DRC

A boy is obsessed with a woman who sells sandwiches. He goes to the supermarket almost every day, just so he can look at her face. She is beautiful to him, and he calls her "Ms Ice Sandwich", and endlessly draws her portrait.

But the boy's friend hears about this hesitant adoration, and suddenly everything changes. His visits to Ms Ice Sandwich stop, and with them the last hopes of his childhood.

Continuing on my journey to explore new contemporary Japanese authors, I have been reading a series of novellas published by Pushkin Press. So far, I have been pleasantly surprised with the meaning packed into these rather bizarre stories, which have been written by Akutagawa Prize winning authors. Following last month’s dream-like short story collection, Record of a Night too Brief, Mieko Kawakami  kept me intrigued with a young, unreliable narrator who finds himself infatuated with an exotic woman who sells sandwiches in the local supermarket in her novella, Ms Ice Sandwich.

This is an ARC review of Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich which releases January 23, 2018.

*Special thanks to Pushkin Press for allowing us to review ahead of publication.

This review contains spoilers and quotes from the book.

Although initially jarring, the narrative begins inside the mind of a fourth grade boy, using stream of consciousness to convey his thoughts and actions to the reader. While the opening was most definitely jarring in the original language as well, Louise Heal Kawai really does a wonderful job with translation, as it flows smoothly and feels natural, despite the difficult opening sequence. Kawakami starts by listing a sequence of numbers and landmarks, enticing the reader to continue onward, whereupon it is revealed that the unnamed narrator is visiting a woman that he affectionately refers to as Ms Ice Sandwich, who appears beautiful to the narrator despite features that make her stand out in a crowd.

Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer. There’s one more awesome thing about her – if you watch when she looks down, there’s a sharp line above her eyes, as if when she closed her eyes, someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway. It’s the coolest thing. And then when she looks straight at me, she has these enormous eyes which are so big I feel like I get swallowed up in them.

– excerpt from Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich

While the story seems simple at first glance, as it merely recounts the day to day life of a young boy, Kawakami includes a number of surprising complexities that offer insight and provoke thought on topics of prejudice, love and loss by introducing Ms Ice Sandwich.

It is immediately made clear that Ms Ice Sandwich is different in appearance when compared to the individuals that the narrator encounters on a regular basis, in large part due to the emphasis that he gives her features. Her large eyes and exotic makeup make her stand out in an impressionable way to the narrator, but are seen in a negative light when considered from outside sources. In particular, the narrator recounts two events that occur that suggest that Ms Ice Sandwich has used artificial means to improve her appearance, although this is never actually confirmed, as the narrator does not understand the concept of plastic surgery.

The narrator overhears a group of girls judging Ms Ice Sandwich for her appearance during art class. The trio, who are described as being popular and appearance oriented, begin to comment on the narrator’s infatuation as a means of gossip. The narrator relays their conversation in real time, wherein the girls explain that Ms Ice Sandwich’s appearance incites fear that causes them to avoid the supermarket, claiming that it is unnatural and scary. Their commentary causes the narrator to question her appearance for the first time, which later impacts him psychologically and causes him to avoid visiting the supermarket. Although he longs to see Ms Ice Sandwich, and continues to think, talk and draw images of her appearance, which is, in his mind, perfect, he is negatively influenced by the events around him on an unconscious level.

So Ms Ice Sandwich’s face that I look at almost every day was made by plastic surgery. That’s not Ms Ice Sandwich’s real face? And if it’s not, why did she do plastic surgery? Was there some reason why she had to change her face? But I can’t imagine what that reason might be. And does this mean that anybody can have plastic surgery?

– excerpt from Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwhich

Throughout the novella, the narrator often expresses a maturity that seems above his age. His inclination toward equality makes it difficult for him to comprehend prejudice. Furthermore, his emotions are well-developed and his thoughts on the matter are surprisingly relevant. Kawakami writes in such a way that the reader can easily identify and emphasize with the specific emotions and scenarios that the narrator is experiencing, sometimes describing phenomena such as love, attraction, and sadness in such great detail that they resonate on a personal level.

Although the narrator is unaware of the cause of his grandmother’s condition (it is implied that she has suffered from a stroke that has left her unable to communicate or move), he becomes increasingly aware that her illness is progressing, as he spends a very large portion of his time with her while his mother is working. In describing the narrator’s thoughts and feelings regarding his grandmother, Kawakami describes loss and suffering that is incredibly relatable to anyone that has experienced the death of a close relative.

I stare at sleeping Grandma’s face and remember a photo I have of me on a swing with her when she wasn’t so skinny and was much more healthy. Her loud laugh. The light purple sweater without sleeves that she always used to wear. Her hair long and tied back. Those Grandmas and this Grandma. The Grandmas I have in my head and the Grandma lying here with her eyes closed, quietly sleeping. Which is the real Grandma? … When Grandma goes away from this earth, where will she go? … Grandma’s still here, it’s not like she’s already died or anything, so why do I keep thinking this way?

– excerpt from Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich

As the narrative develops, we witness the narrator as he progresses through a six month period in which he continues to struggle with his fascination with Ms Ice Sandwich. After he stops seeing her regularly, a friend that he has confided in chastises him for not making himself known to her, offering another relatable piece of advice regarding friendship and loss. Kawakami once again puts into words a few of the emotions and situations that we experience in adult life, despite narrating from the point of view of a child.

If you want to see somebody, you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and the next thing you end up not seeing them any more. 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.

excerpt from Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich

Just when we begin to wonder whether the narrator will ever see (or confront) Ms Ice Sandwich, as the narrative focuses primarily on his thought process and actions, including his devotion to drawing the perfect image of her, he meets her one day only to learn that his own perceptions of her were untrue. Initially, he considered her to be cold, as she barely spoke during her job, but finds her to be pleasant upon speaking with her outside of the workplace. Furthermore, he learns that she is leaving her job as she is getting married and that she is quite happy with her life, despite the rumors that he hears about her.

Despite the simplicity of the narrative, Kawakami pushes the reader to think about their own thoughts, emotions and actions regarding their relationships in real life. In a simple story that sheds a positive light on physical differences, Kawakami takes a stand toward prejudice in the best way. At the same time, Ms Ice Sandwich is a reflection on Japanese childhood and Westernization, offering a bit of contemporary Japanese life to the non-native reader.

Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.

3 Comments

    • Not including the translator was a complete oversight on my part. The review has been updated to include the translator’s name as well.

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