REVIEW: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata

In brief: Short stories dealing with the human body, spirit, sex and relationships in ways you have never imagined.

The good: Being challenged to look at rituals and cultural norms differently.

The not-so-good: I got a bit squeamish!

Why I chose it: Enjoy Japanese fiction and thought Convenience Store Woman was great. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the copy.

Year: 2022 (2019 in Japanese)

Pages: 266

Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori from the Japanese

Publisher: Granta (Allen & Unwin)

Setting: Japan

Rating: 8 out of 10

My friend often teases me for my love of Japanese literature. “It’s so weird, with so many random things going on,” she says. I don’t think I’ll tell her about Life Ceremony because even I was jolted out of my comfort zone by some of the topics discussed in the 13 short stories in this book.

The stories contained within the book take human rituals (think sex and funerals) and turn them on their head, sometimes bordering on the taboo. They also look at the use of human bodies in different ways – furniture, clothing and even cannibalism. Food and what is normal to eat is also considered in several stories. Relationships and their roles in society are also considered in a novel, different way which seems to be a Murata trademark. Some of the stories had a bigger ickiness factor for me than others, but trying to look beyond that, Murata is very clever in how she exposes and challenges what we consider normal. Take the ‘life ceremony’ mentioned in several of the short stories. It’s what we would know as a funeral, but with a grotesque twist – the eating of the corpse which culminates in a mating ritual with the intention to procreate. It seems normal to many of the character except a select few, who are seen as weird and abnormal by others. Other stories have a piece of household furniture taking on human feelings and two children keeping an unusual pet. Some stories are more straightforward – friendship between girls and women and another woman who adapts her personality in different settings to fit in.

The stories all have a sense of being the outsider – thinking or acting differently to the cultural norm. Many of the characters are ashamed by their otherness, while a select few revel in it. While some of the stories shock, it’s never for no reason. Murata uses the shock factor to show discrepancies in the way humans think and act, and to ask the question if what we believe and do is actually right. The stories are written clearly – no smoke and mirrors here. They are always engaging, even if the subject matter is uncomfortable.

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