To the Mine Face (『切羽へ』 or “Kiriha e” in Japanese) by Inoue Areno （井上荒野) won the Naoki Prize, one of Japan’s top literary prizes, in 2008.
To the Mine Face is an elegant and compact novel about one woman’s life in a former mining town on a remote island off southern Japan. The unnamed town is thought to be modeled after the town of Sakito (崎戸町) on Kakinoura Island (蛎浦島) off the coast of Nagasaki, where the author’s father, the novelist Inoue Matsuharo, spent his childhood. Composed in thirteen short chapters, To the Mine Face reads like a monthly diary with one entry each for March, April, May and so on.
I want to say two things about this beautiful novel.
First, the story has been described as a love story about a contentedly married woman who finds herself attracted to a male schoolteacher from Tokyo. That description is accurate. But To the Mine Face is much more than that, by being much less. Inoue never tells us that the woman, Aso Sei, feels attracted to the schoolteacher. She never mentions love. She never even mentions interest or romantic feelings as such. All we know, as we follow Sei’s thoughts over thirteen months, is that she sometimes looks at him, she sometimes talks to him, and she sometimes ponders simple questions about him, such as whether he’ll stay on the island. But that’s it. They don’t kiss. They don’t embrace. They don’t pine. They don’t exchange furtive glances. Their hearts don’t race when they see each other. The romantic drama resides simply in the degree and carefulness of her attention to him. We feel morally warm and cozy when her husband is in her mental foreground, so to speak. We feel moral suspense when the Tokyo schoolteacher comes to the foreground, and when he stays there just a bit longer than we’d expect. But that’s it. That’s the drama. That’s the love story. It is extremely delicate and intimate.
The second thing I want to mention is that Inoue captures, in prose, a wonderful sense of time and pacing that is recognizable to — and sought after by — anyone who has enjoyed a sustained yoga or meditation practice, or has spent several days in a monastery, or simply enjoys rural life. I also seem to get this peculiar sense of time after a good acupuncture treatment, where time seems to slow down and I feel attuned to everything around me. The world slows down, but it’s hyper-illuminated at the same time. More prosaically, the subject matter of To the Mine Face concerns the slow life on a slow remote island. But Inoue’s prose, on the other hand, is extremely concise and compact. Minimalist. Sparse. It doesn’t dwell on peripheral details. Although almost nothing happens, Inoue’s dramatic sensibility clips along tightly. Although her world floats in time, I’m never bored. The events are slow, but the drama is quick. I’ve never quite seen this captured on paper.
Inoue previously won the 1989 Femina Prize for her essay Watashi no Nureefu (My Nureyev), and her short-story anthology Bacon was nominated for the Naoki Prize in 2007 before she won the prize with To the Mine Face in 2008.