I am usually well inclined to fiction which attempts to portray the journey of characters through several aspects of different cultures and have a large collection of such books from many countries. Reading this particular book by a Belgian writer who lived in Japan however reminded me that one enters into this genre of displacement and cross-cultural ventures with both promises of entertainment and insight and perils of reinforcing stereotypes.
I do not consider myself an expert on Japan, a country I have visited several times and several of whose novelists (Kawabata, Mishima, Endo, and others) I have read in translation. However, over the years I have followed in depth the experiences of many of my close non-Japanese friends who have carefully labored to study the language and culture, worked in similar Japanese organizations to the one described in this novel, and even married and settled in this land of persistently refractory attitudes to foreigners.
I thus read this novel (which is short and easily completed in an hour or two) with mixed feelings. The characters are vivid and the plot is entertaining. The scenes are both horrific and hilarious, partly because they are also caricatured. This includes the final scene where the protagonist is forced to grovel in submitting her resignation from a Japanese import-export firm, lamenting that her "Western brain is inferior to the Japanese brain" to the delight of her Japanese nemesis.
My dominant reaction was however one of horror with the stereotypes that the book simplistically designs and reinforces of Japanese attitudes toward women and foreigners. Like all stereotypes, there can always be an element of truth in them. I have certainly heard some of my (female) non-Japanese friends report experiences not unsimilar to those portrayed in this novel. However, this novel seems unrepentingly obsessed with them, and has no insightful descriptions of art, scenery, language, history, or other aspect of Japanese culture which might bring some balance and context to its outlandish caricatures.
This may be a harsh judgment on a book which, after all, won the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise and the Prix Internet du Louvre. But it is especially an appeal for this genre of fiction to achieve some verisimilitude to the culture(s) it portrays, and not hide behind the easy pretext of literary license or read-made stereotypes. On this score, this book should hardly be a best standard for its genre.