Book Review: Ms Ice Sandwich – Mieko Kawakami

Ms Ice Sandwich
By Mieko Kawakami
Pushkin Press

Review by Harry Martin

Childhood is unique in that it is the only period of our lives where actions are purely instinctive and
organic, facilitating a fanciful and whimsical approach to life before pragmatism and realism take
hold with increasing age and experience. It is lived in the present, being concerned only with the
immediate and those who play an active part in our everyday life.

Although over time individual memories can lose their clarity, obscured by the haze of childhood
past, we seldom forget those salient and significant moments like the loss of a loved one, the first
flicker of love or even the more prosaic events like moving house or having our first argument.
Mieko Kawakami has presumably written “Ms Ice Sandwich” with something similar in mind,
focusing on a snapshot view into the life of a young boy going about his life, reacting to and
overcoming the challenges and events that affect him during this particular moment of his
developing childhood.

The main focus is the boy’s infatuation with a mysterious and aloof sandwich server at the local
supermarket. From her distinctive eyes, outlined by a shock of electric blue makeup, to her cold but
highly efficient process of selling and packaging sandwiches, the girl ignites an infatuation within the
boy, compelling him to make the daily pilgrimage to buy sandwiches from her and to endow her
with the name ‘Miss Ice Sandwich’. Although this provides us with our central plot line, we follow
the boy in his daily interactions with all those present in his life at this time. This includes his
distracted and self-involved mother, jovial school friends and an adored but sickly grandmother who
provides him with his only real emotional support.

The story deals with moments of loss, disappointment and unexpected delights with which the boy
copes and processes in a way that is realistic and yet maintains a subtle hint of humour. Ultimately
this is a coming-of- age story, typical of the genre, but written through the eyes of the child and
translated to reflect this in the protagonist with colloquialisms like ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ littering the
discourse throughout. I have always felt this a somewhat difficult tone to navigate because it
unavoidably gives the impression of a children’s book as the language can seem rather immature
and simple in its form. This can be offset by a complex and richly adorned storyline, but
unfortunately “Miss Ice Sandwich” does not provide the necessary depth to lift the story above the
simple language and therefore largely remains a simple and unchallenging read. There are hints of
intrigue in the story, such as Ms Ice Sandwich’s physical appearance, age and life outside the
sandwich shop, but all remain largely undeveloped and left to the reader’s imagination and
interpretation without much support from the text.

This is not to say that the story is unenjoyable, and in fact some satisfaction can be drawn from its
simplicity and the honest depiction of a how a young boy sees the world around him. Although not
what I would call a ‘must read’, “Ms Ice Sandwich” is a pleasant and unintimidating story for any
reader to pick up and, as this is my first experience of Mieko Kawakami’s work, I am intrigued to see
what other offerings she may have.