In Autumn Light, Pico Iyer returns readers to Japan nearly 30 years after he enchanted them with the highly successful The Lady and the Monk. However, the Japan he once visited is not the one he now finds himself in, and Pico Iyer is an older and wiser version of himself. In the intervening years, though, none of his keen skills of seeing have been lost, and if anything, they are more truly honed with wisdom and maturity. The book is not a sequel, but there are connections that will please those familiar with the earlier work, and will not alienate new readers.

While the earlier book was a chronicle of his exploration of the broader issues of Zen and Japanese culture, Autumn Light puts the frame around the intimate lives of ordinary lives of his Japanese wife’s family and people he encounters in a residential neighborhood outside of Osaka.

The once younger man with the curiosity and freedom granted by a one-year visa, contrasts with an older one, now married to Hiroko (“Sachiko, the lady” in earlier book), and tethered to step children and in-laws. Pico Iyer is more settled and wiser, but certainly not domesticated, and still the “outsider” living in Japan six months a year.

Those ties to his Japanese family provide a wealth of material of storytelling and a cast of characters that include aging parents, adult children, and his wife who is unjaded by life and full of youthful energy. Perhaps most intriguing, even for the family, is her brother, who has cut all ties with family, not in solitary isolation, but in a separate and full social sphere just blocks away.

Iyer’s career as a writer allows him to wander and linger in the neighborhood in casual clothes during the day while his Japanese counterparts scurry off on their commutes in their uniforms of working Japan.

In the neighborhood community center he encounters a second set of characters of mostly retirees, whose personalities and actions are as entertaining as they are revealing of an older Japan. Their central activity is ping-pong, which they take as seriously as any warrior takes war. Their gaming personalities are worn like armor, and mostly shed as they step off the court, as milder and gentler, but no less eccentric, versions of themselves emerge again.

It is the rare writer who can resist letting colorful events and personalities themselves carry a book’s narrative and then call it a day. Iyer pierces the surface and seeks the depths of people and their pasts, which prompts the reader to ask such questions. He cannot imagine those ping-pong playing seniors without seeing them in the context of their childhood and growing up, much of which was formed by the cruel years of World War II and its aftermath. His lifelong relationship with inquiry and Zen allows us to see more than we expect, and maybe more than we deserve.

Pico Iyer is more than an uncommon writer; he is an uncommon observer, able to witness things without guile or prejudice, and almost every facet of them, no matter how many and more than most can imagine. He inquires with a kind of innocence, devoid of naivete and agenda, which engenders trust and openness to those he encounters. He is also someone who can suspend judgment until a sensible discernment takes hold and finds easy equilibrium.

Much of the book is devoted to short gems of stories made up of otherwise mundane components, yet his surefire skills pull readers into his neighborhood, one that lives within an aging population in Japan. Pico Iyer is enough of a writer to make the everyday interesting, and human enough to know the true value of the ordinary and the value of living.

Tightly resolved endings are not common in his stories, and their absence, combined with powerfully charged economy of words, feel so Japanese and so well tailored to the stories’ settings. Stories float effortlessly without full resolution, and the reader is whisked off to the next narrative, fully captured in the flow.

In Autumn Light, some fans of The Lady and the Monk may miss the broad discourse of Japanese traditions, culture, and legacy featured there, but most will not. The season of autumn is tied to the yearly calendar and the entirety of the calendar of our lives; but for Iyer, following the subsequent darkness of autumn is the light of spring.

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