Title: The Woman in the Dunes
Author: Kōbō Abe
Genre: Fiction, classics, contemporary, existentialism, surrealism
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: After journeying out to a remote beach town to study bugs, school teacher and amateur entomologist Jumpei Niki misses his last bus home. The local villagers offer him lodgings at the bottom of a vast sand pit that can only be reached by rope ladder. However, when he tries to leave the next morning it appears the locals plan to keep him captive. His only company is the strange young widow who also lives in the pit, and together they are expected to shovel back the ever-advancing sand that threatens to destroy the village.
“Sand, which didn’t even have a form of its own[…]. Yet, not a single thing could stand against this shapeless, destructive power. The very fact that it had no form was doubtless the highest manifestation of its strength, was it not?”
– The Woman in the Dunes, Kōbō Abe
“The Woman in the Dunes” was first published in 1964 and combines themes of suspense and existentialism beneath its seemingly straightforward storyline. Included are also simple yet unique illustrations drawn by Machi Abe. For me, this book balances on the edge between 3 and 4 stars. On one hand it’s a rather brilliant read that tackles deep philosophical questions, but on the other hand I feel my attention drifted in too many places for it to completely live up to my expectations.
The one thing that really stands out in this novel is the description of sand and its properties. Abe has a way of masterfully giving life to an otherwise ordinary, plain, and empty landscape, and the result is a feeling of eeriness, claustrophobia, irritation, and suffocation. The sand gets everywhere and clings to everything, and the imagery is sometimes so vivid you can practically feel the itch of its grainy stickiness on your skin. I didn’t know that there were so many ways to write about sand, which is honestly not very interesting in itself, but this is done in such a captivating way that I enjoyed reading about it nonetheless.
Next to being the main setting, the sand also becomes a character in its own right. It continuously makes its presence known to the protagonist and despite repeated attempts to remove it, it keeps returning. Metaphorically, it seems to provide an image of how some of us tend to mechanically labour through life to the extent that this existence is all there is. At the same time the sand is also antagonistic in the way that it gradually takes over the characters’ identity, both physically and mentally. The sand is the only thing they know, see, and feel, and thus it becomes their only existence. It creates an uncertain and unstable relationship between man and nature. The powerful imagery of constantly shoveling sand into eternity, set in an environment that is so vast but yet so cramped, makes this an eerie and surreal read, and I quite like that.
However, the story eventually becomes very repetitive – which I realize is probably the point but the effect honestly wears off after a while. It’s overall not a very long novel but it still took me longer than expected to finish it. As a reader there is only so much I can take of that suffocating, drowning feeling, and I’m not sure if it’s because of skillful writing that managed to get under my skin, or if I simply got fed up with this particular aspect in the end. There were also some rather introspective passages included in the novel that seem to deal with sexual and socio-political themes, but these kind of confused me and didn’t seem to fit the main storyline – or I suspect that they were just completely lost on me. Most likely, some of the intended symbolism went over my head and I have to admit that my attention drifted in several places, especially during this fragmented middle part of the book. To be fair it does pick up towards the end in both intensity and pace, and it comes together in a solid ending that fits the plot and the characters as a whole, but it trudges along for quite a while before we get there. Again, maybe this was exactly the point.
This is a very unique and strange read written in a narrative style that probably won’t be to everyone’s liking, but it’s still worth checking out if you’re into excellent use of imagery and surreal, philosophical stories.