1960s Classics

The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe

 Translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders

The Woman in the Dunes is a classic of Japanese literature. It was first published in 1962 and immediately received critical acclaim. It is said to have influenced Murakami and the new Penguin classics version has an introduction written by David Mitchell, so perhaps you can see why I had to read a copy!

The book focuses on Niki Jumpei, an insect enthusiast, who heads to the sand dunes in the hope of finding a new species of beetle. At the end of a long, fruitless search he looks for somewhere to shelter for the night. He finds a strange village on the dunes and agrees to spend the night in the home of a young widow. In the morning he wakes to find that the rope ladder he climbed down has been removed and he is trapped in the steep-sided sandpit. The villagers force him to shovel the ever-encroaching sand that threatens to bury the village and he wonders if there is any possibility of escape from this nightmare.

This house was already half dead. Its insides were half eaten away by tentacles of ceaselessly flowing sand.

The Woman in the Dunes is a very accessible novel, making it the perfect introduction to Japanese literature. I loved the simple, yet powerful themes present in this book, as we witness one man’s struggle for survival against man and nature. The tone of the book is quite bleak and the scenes are described so vividly that you can almost feel the sand getting into every crevice and crease of your body.

There are many elements of Japanese mythology in this book, but unlike some Murakami it stays grounded in reality (if you consider it realistic to trap people in giant sandpits!). The book is quite short and the suspenseful nature of the plot means that it is a quick read. The simplicity of the story line is the only reason I haven’t rated this book higher. It should become a classic every language, but its fleeting time in my life means that I probably won’t give it much thought in the coming months.

Recommended – especially to those who want to try Japanese literature for the first time.


…a very powerful and intriguing book  Tony’s reading List

Extremely provocative, mind-bending, but most of all the uncomfortable. Paper Foxes Run Run

….a bleakly beautiful rendering of nature’s ultimate authority. Incurable Logophilia

Kobe Abe has written several books and I am keen to read more of his work.

Have you read any of Kobo Abe’s books?

40 replies on “The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe”

I keep promising myself that I will dig into Murakami, but so far have only read his memoir! I do have Wind-Up Bird and Kafka on the Shore in my stacks, so its going to happen. I think I’d like to try this one too…perhaps less intimidating by its size.

Sandy, I recommend starting with Kafka on the Shore. I hope that you get round to reading one of his books soon, or you could start with this one – it is very short.

This sounds really good Jackie. I have to say when I read ‘insect enthusiast’ I was somewhat dubious (see the assumptions we make are awful sometime haha) but reading on it sounds like a really interesting read. Thats another book for the birthday wishlist then!

Simon, I almost chose this for our book group, but I’m glad I didn’t as it is a bit short/simple for a long discussion. There are quite a lot of simlilarities between this and Murakami – the difference is that Murakami seems to favour wells over giant sand pits!

I have never read any Japanese Literature, I keep telling myself I should really read some Murakami, but it’s hard to know where to start. This sounds like it might be an easier way to introduce myself to Japanese Literature. Thanks for the review.

Iris, Murakami can be a bit weird so I do think this is a better place to start. Short and simple, but powerful. This book really should be better known in the Western world.

I have been wanting to read this one. Each review makes it sound more and more intriguing. Also, I haven’t read much Japanese literature, so this sounds like a good place to start!

I hate to say it (another example of my rather limited reading) that I have never read an work of Japanese literature. Maybe this is a good place to start….

caite, Japanese literature is wonderful. It can get a bit weird at times, but I love the fact that you never know what is going to happen next. I think you should give this book a try – hopefully you’ll fall in love with Eastern literature.

Wow, this sounds… odd. I mean, a pretty drastic way to solve a village problem, isn’t it? Locking up a stranger? 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it and that it’s so accessible, though! That definitely makes it much more attractive!

Aarti, Some people are a bit weird! They make interesting stories though – I’d be interested to dig a 30ft hole in the sand and see how hard it is to escape when you have a shovel and plenty of time to dig!!

Not read this, but it does sound interesting. Am a little wary of the insect references though… not sure why I’m seeing creepy-crawly references everywhere now-a-days! Metamorphosis, Middlesex (Silkworms count!), The Fly etc. Not a big fan.

I haven’t read much Japanese fiction (other than Murakami and Ishiguro), so will add this to the list.

anothercookiecrumbles, The insect references are quite numerous in the first few chapters, but almost vanish after that. If it starts to freak you out then just remember that it will all be over soon. Sorry to hear that they spoil your enjoyment of a book. I love insects!

Teresa, I saw that there was a film of this book, but I’m not sure I’m interested in watching a man stuck in the sand – I can’t imagine it working on screen.

You’re right that the story is simple, I guess that’s why I thought the book was too long/slow for such a simple story. And it made me thirsty all the way, argh. I recommend you look for the movie as I think it’s pretty good (possibly better than the book).

Hello Jackie – Hope you are well – I have heard about a book which is meant to be very good and wondered if you had come across it ?

The book is called Prince of the Romantics ?

I live in Japan. I love Kobo Abe very much. I’m very delighted that he was read overseas. Please try Tatsuaki Ishiguro. Only one book is published in English. Kobo Abe graduated from medical department. Tatsuaki Ishiguro is a working doctor. I feel two novelists close.

Asako, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! I haven’t heard of Ishiguro before, but will go and do a bit of research to see which book is available – thank you for the recommendation!

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