If you think stories of first-love are too overrated, then think twice. I believe everybody has experienced a thing called ‘first love’ at some point of their lives. No matter how far we come in our lives, we can’t deny the fact of still remembering the time, when our hearts fluttered for the first time for someone. We think we have outgrown that feeling, but there are books that hold the power of taking you to that forgotten time. “Ms. Ice Sandwich” by Mieko Kawakami, a quirky story of first love is one such book.
About the author
Mieko Kawakami is a Japanese singer and writer, from Osaka. Her work has won many prestigious awards including, the 138th Akutagawa Prize. She is also an avid blogger with her blog getting millions of hits. She was selected as Granta Best of Young Japanese Novelists 2016 for her short story “Marie’s Proof of Love”. Kawakami’s novel “Ms. Ice Sandwich” was shortlisted in 2018 edition of Grand Prix of Literary Associations. Her work has been translated into Korean, German and Chinese, thus finding a receptive audience, both at home and abroad.
This book is of interest for
Premise of the book
“Ms. Ice Sandwich” is Mieko Kawakami’s first book to be translated into English, opening doors for a much wider audience. It’s one of the books in the new ‘Japanese Contemporary Fiction’ series published by the Pushkin Press.
The story is like a breathe of fresh air that brings the bitter-sweet memories of dreamy childhood crush. The age of innocence when every thing seems plausible. It’s the story of a fourth- grader boy seeking a source of love and longing in this thoughtless world. A story that will warm your heart by offering a tinge of hope.
The novella is written in the first person with the boy narrating it. It begins with him walking on the white line at the edge of the road. As he walks precisely, he keeps on counting the steps, with nine-hundred fifty pointing exactly to Ms. Ice Sandwich, a name he made up for a woman who sells sandwiches in the supermarket. He is fascinated by the enormous eyes and electric blue eyelids of Ms. Ice Sandwich. The shade of blue painted on her eyelids, reminds him of the ice popsicles.
“When she looks straight at me, she has these enormous eyes which are so big I feel like I get swallowed up in them. They look exactly like the great big eyes of the dogs that I read about in a storybook long ago.”
Not being a fan of sandwiches, he still makes sure to buy one every day just to get a glimpse of the sandwich lady. There is always a look of surprise and boredom on the lady’s face, who is unaware of the boy’s obsession. She is a reserved lady, who not even cares to ask Hello or Can I help you?, to the customers. She never speaks to anyone unless they speak to her first and handles her work neatly.
The boy is in awe with every little detail of the ice lady. At home, he only has his mother and the bed ridden paternal grandmother. His mother is always busy on her phone or hanging out with her friends. So, he shares his feelings and secrets with his ill grandma.
“If video games make you stupid, then what do mobile phones do to you?”
At school, he has his best friend called Tutti. Her name is also coined by him because of her fart that smells like tutti-fruity. Funny, isn’t it? Tutti lives with her father and loves binging on movies. Though she is a child, her maturity is adult-like. She is different from others as she loves watching and imitating gunfights from movies. While other characters come back and forth, Tutti is one strong character in the book.
The story progresses, and the boy continues to be lost in the thoughts of the ice lady. But one day at school, he overhears his classmates demeaning the ice lady. They make fun of her facial reconstruction and call her ugly. He comes to know that the lady had a surgery. This incident makes him question his liking for the lady and suddenly he stops going to see her. Tutti helps him to get over that lady. She teaches him the importance of saying “Goodbye” and not missing out on things. Her character holds the story together and makes a lasting impact.
“I stopped doing that kind of thing a long time ago,” Tutti says. “You know-putting off stuff and not doing anything, and not going and seeing somebody when I really wanted to. I stopped that. It’s too risky…You should just go and see someone when you can, right?”
The short novella with its quirks, beautifully captures the feelings of fleeting love, longing and the pain of letting go. A story of a boy, who is yet to enter the adolescence, gets to taste the reality of this world.
Mieko Kawakami is a part of an edgy and unconventional group of young women Japanese writers. It has always been a notion that Japanese women are submissive and docile. Therefore, Kawakami’s writing is fresh and like a welcome change to Japan. It’s like a silver lining to all the young aspiring women writers. Celebrated Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, called her his favourite young writer. He described Kawakami’s writing as “ceaselessly growing and evolving.”
Kawakami uses local dialect in her writing, that not only gives her an edge but also intrigues her readers. Her style is casual, which makes it both difficult to translate and understand. But, ultimately it’s able to convey its message, owing to the meticulous translation done by Louise Heal Kawai.
In this novella, the characters are vaguely mentioned, thus narration forms the basis. It’s not a surprise that Mieko Kawakami cites J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut as her writing inspirations. The story looks like a younger, innocent version of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”. Therefore, you get to know more about the surroundings through the boy’s perception. Everything you read, is through the lens of a young kid. The boy’s Kawaii descriptions and looping vocabulary will definitely melt your heart.
“I’ve never seen the middle of the ocean or the edge of the sky, but maybe the kind of breeze that blows in those places now comes blowing in out of nowhere and I feel it wrapped around me. Like when you’re holding a cat and touch its soft belly…Or when a blanket brushes the top of your feet. Or when the butter turns transparent as it melts over your pancakes.”
Nobody could fathom the power of language. This book is the perfect example of that. Because even though the language used is insouciant, it is able to shake the traditional stereotypes. Mieko Kawakami by her unique style, sharply challenges the world we are living in. Questions like- What is one’s identity in this unstoppable world? What is Love? How a small thing could deeply impact one’s life? , forms the main theme of the book. Fascinating, isn’t it? So, what are you waiting for? Quickly grab a sandwich and get ready to dive into this amazing book!