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Reading Shion Miura

This morning I sat in my van outside work crying the good kind of tears – the tears brought out by a gorgeous novel. I can count on one hand the books that have made me cry. This morning’s offering was The Great Passage, a novel by Japanese author Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. It’s the third novel by the pair I’ve read in the last week, and each has been a gem of humanity and compassion and insight.

The Great Passage is about a small team of people putting together a new Japanese dictionary. The book takes place over the course of 15 years and follows the ups and down in the lives of the team members, primarily centered around Majime, the head of the dictionary department. Does that sound like the description of a book that could bring you to tears? But there’s something about the way Miura find the souls of her characters. The writing is never overwrought. It’s simple and beautiful, allowing the actions and words of the humans in the stories to carry the weight.

My introduction to Miura came about a week ago, when a website randomly recommended her book The Easy Life In Kamusari. I’d never heard of Miura or the novel, but for some reason I decided to read it. It’s the story of a high school student from Yokohama (where I once lived) who, upon graduation, gets sent by his parents to the countryside to work for a small forestry company. He doesn’t want to be there and knows nothing about the work, but over time he’s won over by the quiet beauty of the area and its people.

I then read the sequel, Kamusari Tales Told At Night, a series of vignettes told by the same character about the deepening of his relationship with the remote mountain area in which he finds himself, and the mystical beliefs of the people who live there.

I can’t recommend these books highly enough. Miura is brilliant, and Carpenter’s translations are masterful. In particular, her work in The Great Passage is so impressive, being as it’s a book about the Japanese language and Carpenter must make it intelligible to English-language readers while retaining the under-the-microscope look at Japanese that is the hallmark of the book. Quite the achievement.

Find yourself a copy of one of these and slip into a world of small details and real human emotions.  

Published in Books Japan


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