Book Reviews

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

When I asked work colleagues in Belgium for recommendations of authors from their country, the name of Amélie Nothomb came up time and time again.

She’s published more than 14 novels (the number is a bit hard to pin down because apparently she ditches a lot of what she writes). I chose Fear and Trembling because it largely echoes  Nothomb’s own life as a Belgian born near Kobe, Japan and a fluent speaker of the language.

In the novel, Amélie gets a job as a translator for Yumimoto, a prestigious international corporation whose fingers reach into multiple economic pies. It’s run on strictly hierarchical lines:

Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one. That could be said differently. I was at Ms Mori‘s orders, who was at Mr. Saito‘s orders, and so on, with the special mention that, going downstream, orders could skip the hierarchic steps. Therefore, at Yumimoto, I was at everyone‘s order.

Amélie trips over these protocols from her first day, in fact from the minute she walks into the 44-floor building. She should have introduced herself at the reception desk on the ground-floor but instead  took the elevator directly to the top. Within minutes she gets a ticking off from Mr. Saito, the head of general accounting.

Mistake number two comes later that morning when, asked by him to write a letter accepting an invitation  to play golf, he rejects every draft without explanation.

Demoted to tea-making duties, she faces further criticism for daring to converse in Japanese with visitors to whom she serves the tea. Robbed of any real work she begins searching for anything that will relieve the boredom, whether it’s delivering the mail or turning over the calendars throughout the office.

Faux pas follows faux pas, all of which are watched over Amelie’s beautiful supervisor Ms Fubuki Mori. The only woman to reach executive status in the Yumimoto corporation, Mrs Mori resents the challenge to her position posed by Amélie. She tells her:

I am 29 years old, she said. You are twenty-two. I have had my position since last year, I had to fight for it for years. And you, you imagined you were going to reach the same rank within weeks?

Further humiliation follows when Amélie is demoted to the lowliest position possible, so lowly it’s one normally done by contract workers.  But Amélie isn’t one for resentment so she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work cleaning the staff lavatories:

“Anyone else in my situation would have quit. But not if they were Japanese. Fubuki thought she had found a way of forcing me to resign, and hence lose face. Cleaning bathrooms was not deemed honorable in the eyes of the Japanese, but it was less dishonorable than losing face. I had signed a year’s contract, which expired on January 7th, 1991. It was now June. I would survive. I would do what a Japanese would have done.”

There is so much to like about this book. Amélie’s eager, well-intentioned but naive attitude is endearing and the scenes where she clashes with Mrs Mori are wonderfully portrayed. But as much as I laughed along with her at the ridiculous situations in which she finds herself, I also found myself empathising with her humiliation. We’ve all made mistakes in work but few of us (hopefully) experience the levels to which this young woman descends. I know I’ve had a couple of times in my early career where all I wanted to do was crawl back under the duvet and pretend it was another day but I was never so bad that I covered myself with the contents of the litter bin or hugged the computer.

Amélie’s year at Yumimoto gives her a chance to observe the culture of Japanese companies, which she concludes is one which robs employees of dignity.

The accountants who spent ten hours a day copying out numbers, were, to my mind, victims sacrificed on the order of a divinity wholly bereft of either greatness or mystery. These humble creatures were devoting their entire lives to a reality beyond their grasp. In days gone by they might have at least believed there was some purpose to their servitude. Now they no longer had any illusions. The were giving up their lives for nothing, and they knew it.

If this sounds bleak, they are nothing in comparison to her thoughts in Fear and Trembling on the position of women in Japan. Expectations run high: expected to get married by the age of 25; expected to be irreproachable throughout her life; expected to stay slim; expected to always look immaculate; to bear children and be a model wife.

Do not dare hope for anything beautiful. Do not expect to feel any sort of pleasure, because it will destroy you. Do not hope for love because you’re not worthy of it. …. Do not hope that you will get anything out of life because each passing year will take something from you. Do not even hope for anything as simple as a peaceful life because you don’t have a single reason to be at peace.

How much of this is an accurate picture of life today in Japan?

On the few visits I’ve made I’ve certainly noticed how well groomed most women are and how petite but I put the latter down to a more healthy diet than the saturated fat and high sugar content version followed in the West. I’ve also seldom seen a woman in a senior role in a company. Yes they exist but in far fewer numbers than in USA for example.

But in all my interactions with women from Japan I never detected signs that they felt unduly under pressure to conform to the expectations Amélie Nothomb describes. Perhaps her own poor experiences prejudiced her views or perhaps life has changed for the better in the seventeen years since Fear and Trembling was produced. I hope it’s the latter.

Fear and Trembling: Footnotes

About the book: Fear and Trembling was first published in French under the title Stupeur et tremblements , which I think means “Amazement and trembling.” What is the significance of the title? According to the narrator, protocol in Japan states that in the presence of the Emperor, who until 1947 had been considered a living god, a person must demonstrate his or her reverence with fear and trembling. Terror and self abasement were considered a mark of respect.

About the author: Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of a Belgian diplomat who was taken to Japan at the age of two. She livedthere until she was five, attending a local school and learning the language. Culture Trip has created a list of her 10 most notable novels.

Why I read this book: This fits into my World of Literature project. It was part of my 20booksofsummer reading plan in 2016


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

56 thoughts on “Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

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  • I daresay that stupeur means stupor, that is “a state of near-unconsciousness or insensibility.” Which suits the novel & Amelie’s state in it w increasing splendour.

    I enjoyed your explanation tho’. Thanks for your précis as well. I read the novel in the original French, so cannot respond to your assuredly excellent English translation.

    • I can’t take any credit for the translation – I probably found the info on a publishers website

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  • This is one of those books that I’ve heard about and remembered the title without having much more to hang an impression on … thank you so much for this wonderful detailed review – it’s shot right up the reading list (once I find a copy)!

    • I think I got my copy via Abe books because the prices for new versions were rather steep

  • I read this novel before I moved to Japan – I was studying the language and a friend gave it to me saying, “You should know what you’re getting into.”

    For reference I’m an American living in Japan, married to a Japanese guy. I’m an interpreter and have also worked as a teacher, in an office, and studied here during college, so while I’m not native I feel like I’ve seen many different slices of society.

    The book is a product of its times – things have improved slightly over the last 15 years – but a lot of the basic tenets hold. There is indeed pressure to stay slim – social pressure as well as the fact that it’s hard to find clothes over a certain size.

    Resumes have pictures included as a matter of course and it’s not uncommon to see listings like, “Wanted: Wait staff, female, 20-27.” My friend was hired for a job but turned down when she filled out the paperwork – she looked 25 but was actually 30, over their age limit.

    Workplace law makes it very hard to fire a salaried worker after they are hired, a leftover from the “lifetime employment” era. If a company wants to get rid of someone they are often given the very worst job possible (like cleaning bathrooms), essentially forcing the person to quit for the sake of their own sanity.

    Women are expected to quit their jobs either when they marry (not as common now) or when they have kids (still expected). In many parts of the country there’s a shortage of day care places so even if mom wants to go back to work there’s no where for their child to spend the day. And to top it all off there’s the ideal of “gaman” – “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”.

    That isn’t to say that things are all bad. The health care is first rate, easily accessible, and downright cheap compared to the US. There are no guns, violent crime is rare, and I’m never scared for my physical well being, day or night. Like any society Japan has good points and bad points, bits that people like and bits that they’re working to change.

    …which is a very long-winded way of saying that Nothomb’s stories are plausible and things that actually happen, though it’s rare to find all of them heaped on one person in one place to this degree. Thank you for the lovely and in depth review – it obviously struck a chord with me! 🙂

    • thank you for such wonderful insight. I can relate to some of those points having spent futile hours looking at the beautiful clothes in the department stores and not being able to buy anything because the sizes were miniscule. I have a lady in my team based in Tokyo and she had a hell of a time getting child care – because they will not take children part way through the ‘school year’ so if you are unfortunate enough to have a baby in december you end up having to wait a year for a place.

  • I really liked this one. I would say “Stupor and trembling” to translate the French title.
    She’s a quirky writer and I enjoyed the ones I’ve read.

    I heard that Japanese women popstars have in their contract that they must not date. A very famous one was recently demoted because she had an affair with a married man. She was single, nothing happened to the man who cheated on his wife but the singer got punished by her label. (I think she was fired)
    That example combined with what I’ve read in Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino tend to show the place of women isn’t easy.
    But I’ve never been to Japan and one should not generalise.

    • Good grief – that story about the pop star is something I wouldn’t have been surprised about if you’d said it happened in India where they seem to take the very high moral ground with their ‘stars’ but to hear this is Japan is astonishing

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  • Really enjoyed your review of this novel. Nothomb’s an author I’ve been meaning to try for a while, but it’s often difficult to know where to start when you’re reading someone for the first time. This one sounds both intriguing and interesting.

    • There were so many books to choose from but this one kept getting mentioned. Sylvie has given us some good tips for other titles (see her comment here).Hope you find something to your taste

  • Lisa Guidarini

    Have you read Bohumil Hrabal? Highly recommended if you like Nothomb. His ‘Too Loud a Solitude’ is fantastic.

    • Not only have I not read him, I confess that I’ve never heard of him. I shall add him to the list – thanks for the recommendation!

  • Lisa Guidarini

    I love Amelie Nothomb. She’s quirky and off-beat, which I love if it’s done well. I went through a Nothomb phase a few years ago, reading everything I could find that’s been translated into English. She’s one who deserves to be better known.

    • Quirky seems a very appropriate word judging by my experience. I definitely want to read more by her though will have to rely on online ordering since the options in high street bookstores in my area are rather limited.

  • This sounds like a fascinating read, but I’m not sure I could get through all the faux pas. I mostly find it unpleasant to vicariously experience a character’s embarrassment.

    • Now I have this picture of you sitting reading and finding your toes curling at some episodes….

  • What a fascinating post, not only for introducing me to a new author (I like to expand my horizons, too!) but for tying it all in with Japan, which is a country always of high interest to me. The more I read of other cultures, the more I feel that we have in common. Despite some obvious differences.

    • Now if it had been written in Japanese I could have counted it for your Japanese literature project too.

  • This was my first of her books read as well and I found it surprisingly humorous, she’s quite a character Amelie, I find it intriguing and quirky the way she always puts herself on the cover of her books.

    • She’s a character for sure. I found an interview with her which makes her sound that she was quite a handful in her earlier days

  • This is a very timely post for me. Having read Petronille a little while back and enjoyed it I was wondering which Nothomb to turn to next. This one looks just the ticket. Thanks!

    • Would you recommend Petronille? I’m way behind on the blogs I follow so apologies if you’ve just posted your comments on it…..

      • I haven’t but I would recommend it. It’s quite slight – nothing taxing about it – but well done.

  • I think the title, in French, is “stupor and tremors.” Either way, this is a great review. I found your page on Cathy 746’s update on the #20BooksofSummer challenge, which I am also doing. I like how you provide evidence from the book and end with some notes. I’m going to start following you!

    • Im going to ask my Belgian colleagues how they would translate the title. Bet you I get more than one version!. So glad you found me via Cathy’s challenge – I’m looking forward to seeing your reviews

      • Ditto! Her challenge has introduced me to many friends, though it’s been a process. Some don’t update very often and never stop by my blog, but others have become excellent new friends!

        • Ive been gradually going through the list of blogs I follow and realising that many of them no longer are active. Perhaps there is a natural lifespan after which they expire

        • Especially if you didn’t realize how hard it is to get a keep and audience. When you have no audience, it feels like no one’s listening. The best place, if you’re a busy reader, is Goodreads, not a blog.

        • I have a Goodreads account and have joined a few groups there on and off over the years. I found LibraryThing had more insightful discussions – have you tried that?

  • What an interesting sounding novel. Lovely review, definitely a book to keep in mind. I enjoy reading about other cultures.

    • It’s delightful to read Ali. Very short too so could easily be fitted in with your busy reading schedule

  • I’ve wondered about this one. I really liked the film.

    • I never knew this was a film. shall have to go exploring …

  • I enjoyed the culture clash 8n this novel.and how she captured that japanese sense of work

  • sylviemarieheroux

    I’ve read many of her books, but that is one of my favorites.

    • having dipped my toe in the water with this one I’d like to read more by her. any recommendations?

      • sylviemarieheroux

        In that order (English titles according to Wikipedia):
        The character of rain
        Tokyo Fiancee
        The stranger next door

  • I enjoy Japanese food and art, and Haruki Murakami’s novels, but your review has reminded me that theirs is an alien culture. I won ‘t be reading the novel for many reasons, but enjoyed your review.

    • The culture is certainly different – I like the fact that they are not bowing down to all things American like so much of the rest of the world and letting their own culture be swamped as a result


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