The Pequod Review:
The Woman in the Dunes is a simple story that gradually builds to a disturbing and unsettling conclusion. Niki Jumpei, a schoolteacher with an insect hobby, takes an entomological field trip and comes across a seaside village among the sand dunes. When he asks for a place to stay overnight, he is directed to the home of a young widow who lives near the base of a deep sand pit that is accessible only by ladder. The widow spends most of her time in a Sisyphus-like practice of shoveling sand away in order to protect the village from the encroaching dunes. Jumpei stays over but when he wakes up, he finds the ladder is gone and he has been trapped as a laborer. His desire to escape this nightmare — and later, his anger and eventual acceptance of his fate — forms the basis of this claustrophobic novel:
His face was as stiff as starch, his breathing like a storm. His saliva tasted of scorched sugar… and such a terrible loss of energy. At least one glassful of water must have evaporated in perspiration. The woman arose sluggishly, keeping her head bent. Her sand-streaked face came to about the height of his eyes. Suddenly she blew her nose with her fingers and rubbed her hands with sand that she scooped up. Her trousers slipped down over her bending hips.
The Woman in the Dunes is an intense and (it must be said) not altogether enjoyable read, but Kobo Abe's book is an impressive achievement of mood and atmosphere. And a constant theme throughout the book is the essential absurdity of our existence, and the struggles we engage in to avoid this fact: “It is not that work itself is valuable; we surmount work by work. The real value of work lies in the strength of self denial.”