lip lit: the perfect world of miwako sumida by larissa Goenawan
In a word: Wow. Just…wow. What a beautiful, heartbreaking book. For what is at first glance a small and unassuming tale, it certainly packs a punch. That being said, it’s done in a really gentle way, with the writing used to carve out the story rather than build it.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida revolves around Miwako Sumida, a young woman in Tokyo who carries a traumatic secret. However, rather than seeing the world through her eyes, the narrative is told through the perspective of three different characters, all of whom love Miwako in their own unique way: Ryusei, a close friend who harbours unrequited love for her; Chie, Miwako’s best friend, who guesses at her secret but can never find the courage to talk about it; and Fumi, Ryusei’s sister, who spent many years carrying a secret of her own.
Within the first page it is revealed that Miwako recently died by suicide after fleeing Tokyo for a remote village. Before her death, she sent Ryusei a letter to say that she’ll finally explain everything, but she dies before they speak again. Heartbroken, Chie and Ryusei travel together to the village to trace Miwako’s last steps in an attempt to discover why she took her own life. While they are gone, Fumi receives an unexpected visitor who helps her to uncover and understand her own demons.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is a misleading title in a way, as Miwako’s world never does seem perfect. Neither does Miwako, for that matter. In fact, during the beginning of book, she is downright unlikable; certainly, more standoffish and rude than most fictional characters I have come across. But as we get to know her through her friends’ eyes, we learn to love Miwako too — her intelligence, her honesty, and her deep loyalty and love for the people in her life.
I’m hesitant to give too much away, as part of the joy of reading this book was uncovering it layer by layer, each piece adding depth to the text. Though the author, Clarissa Goenawan, is from Singapore, modern Japan is described in intricate detail with the easy familiarity of one who knows it well. More than this, however, the language is reminiscent of Japanese books The Travelling Cat Chronicles (Hiro Arikawa) and If Cats Disappeared from the World (Genki Kawamura). In these stories, as in Goenawan’s, beautiful language and scenes are used as backdrops for a gentle uncovering of what it really means to be human; if anything, the bareness of the writing contains more than any longwinded paragraph filled with metaphors ever could. The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida also contains the same magic realism of these books, where supernatural/magical occurrences, rather than being the focus of the story, are drawn on to create a deeper real-world understanding of grief and loss.
This novel tackles many different themes, some more universally relatable than others; from the sticky sweetness of unrequited love to the unbearable heaviness of hidden trauma. There was no doubt at the beginning that this was going to be a sad book, but even I surprised myself by how deeply I cried at the end.
Despite the sadness of the book, and it is an undeniably sad story, there is also a strange sense of hope: that the bonds between friends and family are unshakeable even through death, and that real love doesn’t need to be reciprocated. Rather, we can appreciate and adore the people we have for the time we are given, and love them for exactly who they are without asking anything in return. And, most importantly, we don’t need to last forever to be eternal and meaningful. And if that isn’t a lovely message for the crazy, oftentimes deeply upsetting, world of 2020, I’m not sure what is.
Thanks to our friends at Scribe Publications, we have one copy of The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida to give away! To enter, simply shoot us an email at [email protected] with ‘Miwako Sumida’ in the subject line by 5pm Wednesday 28th October 2020. The winner will be selected at random. Good luck!
(Entries open to Australian residents only.)