Japanese Novel Review: 天国はまだ遠く Heaven is Still Far Away by Seo Maiko (瀬尾 まいこ)

Recently Seo Maiko(瀬尾 まいこ)’s words have really made their way into my heart and she has become my favorite author. Heaven is Still Far Away(天国はまだ遠く) is the first novel’s of hers that I have read. I purchased it off of Kinokuniya’s USA online site for $9.99.

For the past few weeks I found it extremely hard to stay focused and did not have the energy to read Japanese novels. I made a few starts in different novels, but just found myself floating around from novel to novel without making any progress. I took a break and have decided to reread this book as a way to get back into regular reading again.

Seo Maiko(瀬尾 まいこ) is a fairly popular author and winner of awards such as 2019 Book Sellers Award for her novel And so the Baton is Passed(そして、バトンは渡された) about a young girl and all of the people who have cared for her during her childhood. This book is my most recent purchase and I cannot wait to read it.

Story review:

Chizuru is just plain tired. She’s not doing well at work. Things are going stale with her boyfriend. She has thought about how to end her life before in the past, but then falls pray to her own indecisiveness and ends up continuing on with thoughts of death always floating around in the background. But this time she has decided this has to be it. She places a notice of quitting in her boss’s drawer, empties her apartment, and leaves with a bag that only has exactly what she needs for one night. She’s not very good at her job anyways, just quitting would feel like letting them down as everyone put so much work into the company and she got so much training during her years there. She has been pushing her boyfriend and friends away for months at this point, its not like anyone would really miss her. No matter how she looked at it, she finally felt strong enough to stick with the choice that she made.

She gets on a train and heads up north to the country side looking for the perfect quiet place for her plan. The train slowly becomes more and more empty as the other customer slowly get off at their destination. Chizuru finally arrives after a 2 hour journey and sadly finds the environment around the station too lively for her liking. She cannot commit her final act with so many happy tourist around shopping and enjoying the abundant hot springs. She convinces a wary taxi driver to take her into the darkness of the mountains without a set address in mind. He ends up leaving her at a small deserted looking guest house before driving off. Luckily for Chizuru, she found that the owner was there and willing to let her stay for as long as she liked for only $10 a night. The inn is run by a young man named Tamura who moved back home to take care of his family’s land after they died in a car accident.

After getting settled in her home, Chizuru took 2 weeks worth of sleeping pills. Her attempt did not work and she woke up 2 days later with a completely different outlook on life. This book goes into the daily life of Tamura and Chizuru and the time that they spend together while she stays at Tamura Inn.

My experience reading this book:

I was really excited when I started reading this book the first time around. I heard lots of good things about the author Seo Maiko. While I already had this book on my shelf waiting for me, it also came into my life in another way as well. Right before I started reading this book, a Japanese professor at a near by university offered to lead me a few books as the library was not open to the public due to COVID. Heaven is Still Far Away(天国はまだ遠く) happened to be the first book that I found in the bag that she left for me in front of her office. All of the books that the professor left for me were from authors that I was really interested in and I really appreciate the kindness and thought that she put into her choices. I started reading Heaven is Still Far Away(天国はまだ遠く) as soon as I got home. The first time I read this book, it only took me a few days and I found it to be a fairly easy read.

Personally, I have recently started to prefer books that are set in the countryside of Japan so this book was right up my alley. I did not feel a deep connection with any of the characters in this story but did enjoy the descriptions of their day to day life with each other. This book reads at a pretty slow pace but doesn’t really feel like a comfort read.  More of a slice of life that occurs around one major choice that Chizuru takes in her life.

While writing this review, I was reading this book for the second time. It has been a few weeks since I have read a book to completion and decided that rereading this novel would be a great way to get back into some good study habits. I did not find myself using a dictionary often and was able to just read the book naturally. 

Between readings of this book, I was also able to read Seo Maiko’s Happiness at the Dinner Table (幸福な食卓) as it was in the package of books that the professor lent me. I LOVED this novel and was able to appreciate Seo Maiko’s writing style even more during my second reading of Heaven is Still Far Away(天国はまだ遠く). Reading Seo Maiko’s books really makes me reflect on my own life and how I deal with stress and set backs. No matter what difficulties the characters in the book are going through, Sei Maiko is able to have her stories need on a hopeful note. 

There are not any huge revelations in this story.  Just a women who feels lost and an inn keeper that feels some responsibility to push her get some things done while she stays at the inn.  Chizuru ends up trying out quite a few different things to only find out that she didn’t like it or just wasn’t very good at it.  While there aren’t any clean or clear cut resolutions to any of the issues that Chizuru has, there is character development that happens step by step.

Level Preface

Just to give some background to my current level. I have been using Japanese for a long time now, but just decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. This year I have finished reviewing over JLPT N2 materials and have started on N1. I am planning on taking N1 in 2021.

Vocab: N2 student level

I did not find the vocabulary in the book to be particularity difficult. I think that it would be an easy read for someone who is at around a N2 level. There will still be some new words, but I think a N2 student would be able to get through this book without a dictionary and walk away understanding this novel fairly well.  I think it would be a good choice to slowly pick up a few new words while reinforcing N2 level vocabulary.

While I do not think that I would say there are any often used specific vocabulary groups, this book does mention some words that are related to life in the country side. Overall, all of the words in this book seem to be basic vocabulary that is good for general use.

I do not think that a N3 student would have a terribly difficult time with this novel vocabulary wise, but I think there are much better books out there for that level.

Grammar: N2 student level

The grammar in this book is fairly straight forward. I think that a N2 level student will not find grammar to be a barrier in understanding the plot line of this book. It is written from a first person point of view in a straight forward manner.  When I first started reading this story, I thought that it maybe even be a good choice for N3 level students grammar wise, but N2 grammar does come up often.  I do not think that students need a strong or perfect grasp of N2 grammar before starting this novel.

This story does take part in the Japanese countryside and has characters that speak in a non-standard dialect. This can be a barrier for some readers who are unfamiliar with different dialects. But for readers who are looking to learn more about different dialects, I think that this book would be a great place to start.  While the main character Chizuru speaks in standard dialect, the inn keeper and other characters speak Kansai dialect.  Kansai dialect seems to have the biggest media presence after standard Japanese.  Chizuru mentioned in the beginning of the book that she was planning on going to Tottori or Kyoto, so I am guessing that she ended up going to Kyoto.

I think that a N3 level student might be able to read this book as well, but I am not sure if the story line is captivating enough for beginning readers. Its a fairly quiet book and I think more exciting story lines will help push new readers to feel motivated to read until completion. Just like with Yoshimoto Banana, while both of these authors seem to have a straight forward writing style, I think that there are better authors out there for new readers. The emotional focused nature of the books can make it hard for new readers to keep track of the small finer details in character development. For newer readers, I would recommend books that have a more action based plot line. 

Cultural References

I think that someone who picks up this book would find it useful to have at least a light understanding of Japanese culture to help with understanding the motives behind the characters choices like Tamura’s feelings of wanting to protect the family farm or Chizuru’s answer to dealing with her shame of being unable to quit a job she isn’t doing well at.

As someone who is from America, I think it could surprise other Americans about how cheap life can be in the Japanese country side. I see this reflected over and over again in Japanese news and media, but the general conscious in Japan is that it is completely possible to live a healthy life in the Japanese country side with very little money. In this story, Tamura is the owner of a country side guest house that very rarely has any guests. Its still open for business, but does not bring in any money. Tamura seems to get by in life by selling eggs and vegetables that he grows.

While suicide is a major theme in this novel, it is not handled in the same heaviness that it would be in American media.  There aren’t any overtones telling the reader that suicide is bad and something to be avoided.  But it does seem to suggest that stepping outside of your day to day life might give you a new perspective and give you the spark that you need to change your life for the better.

Who should read this book?

This book does deal with the topic of suicide and I do not recommend it for those who find suicide to be a sensitive topic due to the way some of the characters in this book talk about the topic.

People who like general fiction and are looking for a light read. This book deal with themes of loss and death but its doesn’t go too deeply into them. Its more of a peak into the lives of two people who were thrown together by loss and the short time that they spent together. I think it could be a great book for N2 level students who are looking to get into popular fiction.

Its also a good start for those who are interested in getting more familiar with Kansai dialect.

Length: Short

At 181 pages long, this book is a light short read. This makes it a good read for new readers who at a N2 level. I really recommend shorter books to start out with as it can help build up confidence in new readers to start off with books that are easier to finish.

Due to the size of this book, I was able to carry it around with my very easily and read it often at work as I usually get there fairly early.

Related Media

Happiness at the Dinner Table (幸福な食卓) had a big emotional impact on me towards the end of the book. While this was the most difficult book I have read at the moment, I became really immersed in the story and could not put it down. It is about a family and how they pulled themselves together and continue with life after the main character’s father attempted suicide. I don’t think any other novel has made me cry like this novel did. I highly recommend this novel and its the book that made me fall in love with Sei Maiko as an author.

While reading this book, I often thought back to a movie that I saw recently by my favorite director called ‘HIS.’  This is the story of a man named Nagisa, who is going through the process of divorcing his wife after he grew tired of pretending to live a hetero-normative lifestyle that did not fit him. He travels into the countryside with his young daughter to reconnect with a past lover. I found the the setting of this movie matched really well with how I imagined the town in Heaven is Still Far Away(天国はまだ遠く) looked like.  Both stories touch of themes of leaving ones life behind and moving forward.  I just have a feeling that those who like Heaven is Still Far Away(天国はまだ遠く) will enjoy this movie as well.

While I have not seen it yet, there is a movie that was based off of the book Heaven is Still Far Away(天国はまだ遠く).  Based off of the trailer, it seems like the plot line is loyal to the book.  This could be useful for readers would would prefer to know a story line well before reading the book.

Author: Kuri

I love reading Japanese novels and have seen that many people want to read them but don't know where to start. I have decided to share my experiences to help people reach their literacy goals.

2 thoughts on “Japanese Novel Review: 天国はまだ遠く Heaven is Still Far Away by Seo Maiko (瀬尾 まいこ)”

  1. Hi! I’ve just discovered your blog and I absolutely love it! As someone who is studying Japanese and and always struggle to find new novels to read, your reviews are like godsent, I especially appreciate the fact you also include your thoughts on vocabulary and grammar
    Your review of this book sounds lovely, I’m going to buy it asap and give it a go, thank you for sharing this review with us:)
    Keep it up with the good work!

    Like

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