I’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