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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Great Passage

Miura Shion

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To purchase The Great Passage

Title: The Great Passage
Author: Miura Shion
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 210 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Great Passage - US
The Great Passage - UK
The Great Passage - Canada
  • Japanese title: 舟を編む
  • Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • The Great Passage was made into a film in 2013, directed by Ishii Yūya
  • 舟を編む was made into an anime series in 2016

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Our Assessment:

B : light, reasonably enjoyable workplace novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 23/12/2017 Kris Kosaka
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/8/2017 Janice P. Nimura

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Great Passage is stylistically adept, with the shift in narratives smoothly connecting as characters’ stories overlap through time and space. The novel leaves readers with plenty of thoughtful insights on life, words and the importance of finding your greatness." - Kris Kosaka, The Japan Times

  • "Miura’s book owes some of its charm to the skill of her translator, the veteran Juliet Winters Carpenter." - Janice P. Nimura, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Great Passage is a making-of-a-dictionary novel. Gembu Books has its own dictionary department, and the novel begins with two significant events. First, they finally get the go-ahead with their next big project, the dream of longtime dictionary-man Professor Matsumoto -- a new dictionary, to be called 'The Great Passage' (大渡海). With the department's editor, Kohei Araki, reaching mandatory retirement age, however, a new man must be found to help with the task. (One does have to wonder about the strategic planning at Gembu -- what kind of organization would wait to approve the start of a major project until one of the project-leaders in the tiny department tasked with it leaves the company ?) Japanese company loyalty being what it is, the search is apparently entirely in-house, and it's Mitsuya Majime, from the sales department, that Matsumoto soon sees is an obvious fit.
       The bookish Majime is the ideal man for the job. Word-obsessed, he has the necessary focus and concentration -- even if that also means he's somewhat unworldly (at twenty-seven he's still sexually entirely inexperienced). He stands in contrast to one of the few other employees in the department, Masahi Nishioka, who is much more of a go-getter and much better with people.
       The Great Passage is largely a workplace novel, the focus on the work in the office, an island in this large company -- and set a bit apart from it -- where they go about their endless word-tasks. There is some outside involvement -- authorities are asked to contribute entries -- and this is the source of some of the dramatic tension, as there is the question of how much deference to show the authorities when their work isn't up to snuff. There are also corporate issues, as the dictionary department is an expensive one that doesn't always show immediate returns -- especially on a long-term project the size of 'The Great Passage' -- and there are question as to whether the project can be sustained, and if certain sacrifices must be made to see it through.
       The personal lives of the characters gets relatively short shrift, though the story does follow both Nishioka and Majime home. Nishioka has a longtime girlfriend whom he seems to feel a bit lukewarm about -- she really isn't such a looker when the make-up comes off, and Nishioka is a superficial kind of guy -- but her level-headed devotion finally wins him over. Majime lives so in the clouds that it's hard to imagine him ever finding love -- but then it falls into his lap, in the form of the granddaughter of his landlady. The stunningly beautiful Kaguya Hayashi is training to be a chef, and turns out to be as obsessive about her work as Majime is.
       Majime courts her in typically out-of-date fashion -- sending her a long love-letter, full of complex Chinese characters and poetry (i.e. romantic in only the most abstract way -- and practically incomprehensible to contemporary readers). The letter is the source of some joking and drama -- and a copy of it is included as an appendix to the book, complete with notes by Nishioka (who Majime asked to read it before he handed it over) as well as another employee in the department, who only joins the dictionary-team much later),
       There's a bit of will-she-or-won't-she tension as to whether Majime can win Kaguya over, but things work out fine. Disappointingly, however, there's very little about Majime's domestic life beyond their initial hook-up: Miura describes some of the decisive moments in her characters' lives but keeps a great deal out of sight.
       The first half or so of the novel covers Majime's first years on the slow-moving project. At the end of this time Nishioka gets transferred, and a new employee is supposed to take his place -- though it turns out to take almost a decade before a replacement is found. The book leaps forward this decade, from one chapter to the next.
       It's a rather big leap, but allows work to have progressed -- and not -- and finds the dictionary finally nearing completion. There's fresh blood, as Midori Kishibe joins the team, finally a replacement for Nishioka -- and her fresh eyes show what has changed (and what hasn't) in the department. Majime is now the director -- but still as unworldly and lost in his books and work as ever. He is married, but there's very little sense of what his married life is like.
       Meanwhile, the department took a slight detour, including making an encyclopedia for a popular video game and anime series, the Sokéboo Encyclopedia -- a project Majime ("a real stickler") took just as seriously as any dictionary-work. The Sokéboo Encyclopedia turned out to be a great success, so that took some of the pressure off 'The Great Passage' project -- which is now finally in its finishing stages. There's lots of frantic work left to do, long simmering issues -- the quality of the paper ! -- and last-minute near-disasters -- a missing word -- but working fulltime and with many part-time students helping out it all works out. In this very work-place focused story, many of the characters wind up spending essentially all of their time in the office -- leading to washing and laundry issues that also require larger-scale solutions. Devotion to the work takes precedence above all: Miura allows her characters some personal satisfaction -- everyone fairly easily pairs up with someone -- but little personal life.
       Even Nishioka comes to play a role in the dictionary-launch in his new position, and even as there's some melancholy to go with the triumph, everything more or less ends well.
       The Great Passage is very much a dictionary novel, and there's a great deal about all aspects of making a dictionary -- including, specifically, a lot of word-talk and play. Given that this is a Japanese novel, about a Japanese dictionary, this poses special -- and large -- problems in translation. The (many) examples are left in Japanese, and explained in English -- and most of this works surprisingly well: since the focus is on specific words and usage, there's not that much lost in translation, or at least not that much that can't be explained in English. Certainly aspects of the language -- notably the Chinese characters (kanji) in which much of Japanese is written -- can't wholly be conveyed in English, but even the kanji-issues are conveyed in ways that readers can understand.
       The Great Passage is quite simple and light, especially in its broad strokes -- episodes and issues are resolved, rarely with any lingering aftereffects that require further attention -- and characters, and it's disappointing (and a bit frustrating) that so little of the characters' lives beyond the workplace is described. (Even when they go out to eat, it is largely workplace-socializing, rather than simply social -- and no one seems to have any friends who are not in some way work-related, beyond Majime and his landlady, and then his wife.)
       It is a reasonably enjoyable novel. The making-of-a-dictionary aspect is thorough and interesting, especially in its details (like finding the right paper), and the word-discussions are engaging too. The personal aspects are presented rather too comically broadly -- but it says something for Miura's characterizations that we do want to know and see more of the main characters.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 June 2017

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The Great Passage: Reviews: The Great Passage - the film: 舟を編む - the anime series: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Miura Shion (三浦しをん) was born in 1976.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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