In three words, I would sum up this novel as succinct, creative and suffocating. I know what you're thinking; 'suffocating' is not a particularly positive word. However, I mean it in that you can't stop reading because as you do, the description keeps hitting you over and over, hardly giving you time to breathe. Equally, the presence of sand in the novel, all around the characters, in their food and drink, on their bodies, creates a sense of suffocation at all points.
Yet, although the premise of an insect collector being imprisoned in a sand pit seems in some senses depressing and perhaps boring, Abe really makes sure that it is neither.
So to the beginning but without ruining too much of the novel: we meet Niki Jumpei, an insect collector who has impulsively decided to visit some sand dunes somewhere in Japan to find insects, specifically sand beetles. By nightfall, desperately needing a place to stay, he ends up deep in a sand pit, seemingly offered hospitality by a woman who lives in a deteriorating house at the bottom. By morning, the ladder to freedom has been taken away and so begins Niki's fascination and hate for his imprisonment.
What was interesting was that the protagonist, Niki, came to the dunes because he had a fascination with sand initially. He talks about how it 'flows' around the world and its 1/8 of a millimetre size. And in the novel, the sand does flow through it and it does seem to get into the smallest places. As you read, you can almost feel the sand on your skin, grating at you as it does Niki. His initial fascination soon becomes questioned by the woman he lives with in the dunes, who has lived with sand in a completely different way to him- it doesn't flow for her, it weights heavy on her body, her home, everything she owns. Sand for the woman destroys her possessions, soils food, killed her husband and child.
Niki is educated about sand and a new way of life. Yet he schemes constantly, trying to find his escape. Yet almost like a case of Stockholm syndrome, Niki eventually finds comfort in the woman. If anything, he seems to be more attached to her than she is to him as Niki constantly notes her lack of sincerity. It almost seems she is merely desperate to have a man in the pit with her to help her clear the sand.
Some may have found the minute detail in this novel a bit too liberally spread but I found them exciting to read. I became submerged in the claustrophobic sandy landscape and Niki's turmoil.
Most interesting was that the exact thing that Niki wanted throughout the novel becomes meaningless. Although some may call this obvious, I still enjoyed this. When the ladder is finally returned and left unattended, what does Niki do? It leaves the readers with a few questions: what happens when you finally obtain the unobtainable? Moreover, what happens when you see the world from another perspective and it changes your priorities?
A fantastic read for fans of succinct and alternative fiction. If you like unusual descriptions and facing a situation completely different to your own, this may just be the read for you...