There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (transl. Polly Barton): Giving it your all

Cover imageI’ve often wondered why more fiction isn’t about work given how much of our lives most of us spend doing it which is what drew me to Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, her first novel to be published here in the UK. Having experienced harassment in her first job, Tsumura decided to write about young workers, winning herself several literary awards in Japan, her home country. Her novel is about a thirty-six-year-old woman, burnt out after fourteen years in a demanding job and looking for some respite but needing to be paid.

Our unnamed narrator takes herself off to an employment agency where the sympathetic Mrs Masakado helps her in her quest for the easiest job she can find as near to home as possible. So begins a series of short-term contracts the first of which is monitoring the surveillance cameras trained on a novelist, innocently in possession of contraband. Once the mystery is solved she begins another assignment, writing copy for the advertisements a failing bus company hopes will save it where her new boss makes an enigmatic request to keep an eye on her colleague. Her next job sees her devising eye-catching trivia to adorn rice cracker wrappers. After her whirlwind success seems in danger of being undermined by an interloper, she asks the ever-understanding Mrs Masakado for an easier job and is offered one changing posters. As ever, nothing is quite as straightforward as she’d expected and she finds herself battling a sinister organisation. Her final assignment takes her to a hut in the middle of a forest where she’s presented with the most prosaic of tasks but, once again, nothing is as simple as it seems. By the end of this contract she comes to the conclusion that it’s time to pick up her career once again.

Tsumura’s novel is split into five sections each devoted to our narrator’s latest ‘easy job’, reading like a set of lengthy linked short stories. Our narrator’s humdrum assignments prove to be much more stressful than the undemanding life she’s hoping for: she finds herself in a peculiar one-sided intimacy with the author she’s monitoring; the sudden appearance then demise of businesses seemingly linked to the advertisements she writes discombobulates her; when she’s tasked with coming up with a new series of trivia for the rice cracker wrappers, her brainwave turns her into an agony aunt. Nothing, it seems is without its complications, some of them bewildering. There’s a gentle humour running through these episodes as our narrator deals with her puzzlement and irritation when trying to understand her colleagues’ behaviour. Only at the end, when she’s ready to return to it, do we learn what our narrator’s original occupation was and it’s one to which she seems entirely suited. Tsumura’s novel is a pleasing, quietly enjoyable slice of fiction with a message for those who give themselves entirely to work, no matter how rewarding it may be.

Bloomsbury: London 9781526622242 416 pages Trade Paperback

17 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (transl. Polly Barton): Giving it your all”

  1. This is the second review big this book I’ve read today and it dies sound quirky but delightful. And something of a feat, to have actually found a topic related to the workplace worthy of a novel, it doesn’t surprise me that the workplace rarely inspires a novel, escaping it, yes, but the writing process requires living the experience and the imagination bloggers far more interesting narratives to immerse in IMHO. 🙂

    1. I’m glad to hear it’s getting some attention, Claire. For me, there’s lots of potential for both quiet drama and development of characters/ relaltionships in the workplace but I can see some prefer to escape it.

      1. I think there’s potential too, and probably a large readership audience, it just needs that igniting of inspiration, it’s time will come, when all the world is working from home, the office will become more nostalgic from afar and there’ll be a proliferation of novels set there. 😉

    1. It makes me think of ice cream! Yes, it seems a shame to me. Artifact, which I read earlier in the year, explored the work of a woman scientist within the context of domesticity and gender politics which worked well.

  2. I only heard about this one the other day and the cover instantly screamed Convenience Store Woman to me … so I’m surprised to see that this is over 400 pages rather than a novella.

    I’m reading a workplace novel at the moment, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. It started off funny but has become a slog; I predict hardly anyone from my book club will have finished it!

    1. I can see why Convenience Store Woman would come to mind but this is very different. In case the length puts you off, I’d say it doesn’t feel like 400 pages at all.

      I’ve read the Ferris and share your pain!

  3. So true about many novels not focusing on work, when it is a big part of adult life.

    I recently reserved this book at the library (currently 4th in the queue) and look forward to reading it even more having read this lovely review. Thanks for sharing!

  4. This makes me think of what I have found myself saying a lot recently, to my kids and other family members, ‘Nothing can ever be simple.’ Even when I think it should be, something comes up to make it more complicated.

  5. Nooooo, that Ferris novel is so clever (but after a specific plot point it does become hard to read about that character)! I really enjoyed his book about the dentist too…though I’m guessing neither of you has wanted to return. (He’s one of my MRE authors.)

  6. Okay, I was trying to leave that comment nested underneath your brief exchange with Rebecca, but now it’s just laying around at the end of the comment string. Which is where I was planning to ask if you’ve read Ling Ma’s Severance? If the description totally puts you off, maybe it wouldn’t be a good match, but the parts that I enjoyed about it also included her commentary on the day-to-day of her working life, which also feeds into the rest of the story in a way but mostly it’s just about her tasks and work (which is somewhat book-related).

    1. I haven’t but will definitely look it up. I like the sound of that ‘somewhat book-related’. Work and what we do there, our relationships and routines, has such an influence on the rest of our lives

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