RAD Book Club review: Fear and Trembling

08 Sep 2016

For our special bonus Book Club meeting, we read Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb.

The book tells the story of eager young Westerner Amélie’s time working at Yumimoto, a Japanese corporation. She is determined to adapt and succeed in a Japanese company, but quickly finds herself at odds with a new culture and colleagues, and dark hilarity ensues.

Most of us enjoyed the novel, particularly the opportunity to read about an aspect of Japanese culture. The cultural collision on which the novel hinges and how Japanese working environments are much more rigidly hierarchical than those in the West provoked a lot of discussion. We also discussed the difficulty of finding a stable identity when your life is spent living in different cultures; Amélie wants so much to be Japanese, but the group noted that her efforts to integrate sometimes led to her standing out as Western even more.

The group were baffled and surprised that Amélie could bear to stay in her position for a year after she is subjected to a litany of punishments, although the reason she gives in the book is that in Japan, it is very important to save face and retain one’s honour, and this becomes something she is determined to do. Some of the major themes we discussed link to suicide, which is ever-present throughout the novel. The tradition of honourable suicide in Japanese culture is referred to throughout – Amélie spends a lot of time looking out of high windows, ‘throwing myself into the view’, which she credits with helping her cope with her humiliation at the hands of the Yumimoto company. We found that this brought a darkness to the novel which was thankfully offset by a quirky use of language and some comedic moments. In one particular scene, Amélie finally loses her grip and dances naked around the office after having worked for three days and nights without sleep.

Amélie herself was a divisive character – some of the group felt that she deliberately made her work situation worse by feigning ignorance and being facetious, and others in the group sympathised with her difficulty of fitting into a working environment that was at times openly hostile. Even though she professes to know Japanese culture well, Amélie lacks a crucial understanding of the other characters’ motivations and behaviour which sets her apart. She clashes most with her immediate superior, Miss Fubuki Mori, and their battle of wills made for some of the liveliest discussion of the novel. Amélie spends a lot of time decrying the situation of women in Japan, and yet is fascinated and attracted by Fubuki, her beauty and her achievement in a male-dominated environment.

We all enjoyed the opportunity the novel afforded us to find out about another culture, albeit an obviously fictionalised and one-sided representation, and we agreed the book was very sharp, funny and well-written.