A friend of mine recommended this to me not so long ago, and I read it this morning during an ill-fated mission to buy train tickets to Istanbul (the Istanbul train station is closed for 2 years while they build the high speed rail. Huh.) - which gives you an idea of how short it is - you can get through it in an hour, tops. And oh man is it great. Absolutely sublime.
The novel tells the story of a young woman (who shares the author's name) working at a Japanese company for one year. It is a hilariously funny but oddly moving and beautiful tale of masochism. There is a strangely simple transcendence to be found in the grinding misery of corporate life: "My mind was not that of a conqueror, but that of a cow that spends its life chewing contentedly in the meadow of invoices, waiting for the train of eternal grace to pass by. How good it felt to exist without pride or ambition. To live in hibernation." (41) Nothomb does not paint a pretty picture of Japanese culture - there is an especially devastating interlude where the author describes the life of Japanese women, and the virtues of suicide. The novel decidedly confirms a lot of negative stereotypes about Japan and the seething horror of a life essentially sold to business. It would actually make an amazing companion piece to Kafka's Metamorphosis, I wish I'd read it early enough to put it on my syllabus. Fear and Trembling is a grim look at modern (Japanese) life, but it is also wonderful and funny and interesting. Much recommended.