Despite being prominent in Japan as an Akutagawa Prize-winning writer and singer-songwriter, “Ms Ice Sandwich” is Mieko Kawakami’s first book to be translated into English.

Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami, Translated by Louise Heal Kawai.
96 pages

The novella follows an awkward and lonely young boy, and charts his obsession with the titular character, a woman who works in the sandwich concession of his local supermarket. She has an unusual appearance, the result, we are told, of cosmetic surgery. Her nickname derives from the color of the makeup she uses on her eyelids — a sharp blue reminiscent of a type of popsicle. During the holidays, the boy buys an egg sandwich from her everyday just so he can see her.

In Louise Heal Kawai’s translation, the novella is a wonderful example of the power of narrative voice. An innocent stream-of-consciousness draws the reader into the boy’s world and we learn far more about him from grammatical idiosyncrasies and looping vocabulary choices than from the morsels of detail we are fed.

The wider world is seen only in glimpses: His father is dead, his mother distant, his grandmother is ill, his classmates faceless. Even “Ms Ice Sandwich” is more of an imagined entity. It is only Tutti, an independent girl in his class, who creates her own space in his reality. She pushes him to grow and gives him confidence.

The book is a snapshot of the moment when a child takes a big step toward adulthood, an impressionistic, character-driven work where “what” is secondary to “how,” a premise that should always be the aim of great literature.

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