cover image Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling

Amelie Nothomb. St. Martin's Press, $19.95 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-312-27218-0

Following on the heels of her American debut (Loving Sabotage), Belgian novelist Nothomb's sharp, satiric new novel--winner of France's Grand Prix de l'Academie Fran aise and the Prix Internet du Livre--revolves around a young Western woman's humiliations at a Tokyo firm. At age 22, Am lie has just landed a bottom-rung job in the import-export division of the powerful Yumimoto Corporation. As a European woman raised partly in Japan, she is at once insider and outsider: she is accused of creating an ""appalling tension"" by speaking perfect Japanese while serving coffee at a meeting (""How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understands their language?""), and is ordered to speak only English henceforth. She is awed by her immediate superior, the beautiful and unusually tall Fubuki Mori (whose name means ""snowstorm"" in Japanese). Fubuki, 29 and still unmarried, has earned her position in the face of debilitating sexism and brutal treatment at the hands of her superiors, especially the ranting, obese Mr. Omochi. Kindly Mr. Tenshi gives Am lie a rare opportunity to prove herself by allowing her to work on an important report; enraged, Fubuki betrays them both, sealing the young girl's fate. Despite her intelligence, Am lie is unable to complete the Sisyphean tasks doled out by her superiors, and Fubuki eventually relegates her to cleaning the rest rooms. Nothomb maintains a humorous and effective detachment throughout--Am lie, for instance, finds comfort in a recurring fantasy of falling through one of the company's 44th-floor windows. Readers are sure to be won over by her spare, self-deprecating and wise tale, which contains many smarting truths about sexism and racism in Japanese society, and even more about the rituals of corporate culture. (Mar.)