The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

by Kristopher Cook
The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe Book Cover
After missing the last bus home following a day trip to the seashore, an amateur entomologist is offered lodging for the night at the bottom of a vast sandpit. But when he attempts to leave the next morning, he quickly discovers that the locals have other plans.
Genre: Contemporary
Available from: Amazon UK | Amazon US | Audible

When a book comes with a high recommend, it can often get thrown onto the illustrious To-be-read pile. It sat there for six months, and on a whim, I picked it up for a train journey to Manchester. However, I quickly became engulfed in the mystique of this book and couldn’t put it down.

To fit The Woman in the Dunes into a definitive category is difficult. It possesses a few genres at once; although I suppose that’s what makes it so contemporary, even when published back in 1962 – Drama, romance, terror; they’re all included within this dramatic story of captivity.

The book centres around Niki, an entomologist, who’s out in the desert collecting rare insects. After missing his bus home, he’s offered a house with a mysterious woman, living at the bottom of a pit. Once inside the pit, he realises there’s no way back up.

Both Niki and the woman are well-written characters in their own right, with alternate views on what it means to live. Niki wants to go back home to his family and personal possessions, where the woman is happy to have a purpose within the broader community. This brings up the notion of ‘what is happiness?’

Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion.

Kōbō Abe, Chapter 28

Personally, I can relate to Niki’s feelings of helplessness. I’m sure most of us have had a time in our lives when we’ve felt trapped, lost or unable to know where to go next. This is all part of developing our character because, in these moments, we become more defined as human beings. The struggles we endure and the people who make us think are the ones who broaden our minds into who we are today.

Freedom is a Purpose

Woman in the Dunes raises several questions about freedom. As Niki finds out, there can still be meaning found in everyday work. Now and then, it’s the purpose it gives you in life, and at times it’s the pleasures it can unveil.

Even when confined to a pit in the dunes, relationships can still develop, and hierarchies begin to unfold.

Is freedom the illusion of being able to work wherever you want, with whoever? Or is it the idea of doing what you want? Niki isn’t fit for the manual labour that comes with the pit and rebels against it, at least to begin with.

However, he comes to realise how important it is, not just to his house, but also to the woman.

Everyone has his own philosophy that doesn’t hold good for anybody else.

Kōbō Abe, Chapter 10

In terms of existentialism, this book shares similar values with Sartre’s No Exit.

Both ask questions of why are we here, and what is our purpose? In contrast, though I found this book way less pretentious.

Closing Thoughts

This book is incredibly claustrophobic and has an overhanging eeriness to it; all of which are good, of course.

There are times of palpable tension, and you gain a genuine investment in the outcome of both characters. Will Niki make it home? Will the woman leave with him? Or will they settle down in this pit content with their roles?

Go check out The Woman in the Dunes. It won’t disappoint.

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