Books

Sayaka Murata's Life Ceremony: A fairly mixed bag of strange and grotesque tales

Life Ceremony will appease readers’ appetite for Murata’s fantastically strange fiction, writes Barry Pierce.

Ramen bowl

Image: Valeria Boltneva via Pexels

Life Ceremony is out now (Granta Books)

Sayaka Murata is a literary troll. She burst onto the world stage in 2018 when her novel Convenience Store Woman was first translated into English. The novel, the story of an introverted young woman who rejects the expectations of Japanese society, became a multimillion-copy bestseller. But it was with her second novel in English, Earthlings, that Murata revealed exactly the kind of writer she was.

As far from Convenience Store Woman as you can get, Earthlings was an ecstatically deranged little novel that centred around incest, paedophilia, murder and cannibalism. It was even the subject of an online trend where people would film themselves as they reached the novel’s final pages and we would watch as they went through every emotion from revulsion to desolation. 

For her latest release, a collection of short stories called Life Ceremony, Murata mixes together the styles of her two previous works to create a fairly mixed bag of strange and grotesque tales.

The stories that work best in this collection are the ones that Murata spends the most time with. Longer stories such as A First-Rate Material, about a family that use parts of their deceased loved ones as fashion accessories, and the title story Life Ceremony, which refers to a tradition in which dead people aren’t buried but are cooked and eaten by their friends and family, allow Murata to flex her strangeness while not making the stories themselves strange. 

In her longer stories, the weirdness is simply an aspect of the lives of the characters which she employs to actually explore their lives and relationships. 

The collection falls down in its shorter stories where Murata instead focuses solely on a weird idea and it simply stops at that. For example, the story Poochie, in which a girl keeps an adult man on a leash and refers to him as her pet, sounds like a good starting point for a longer story but it is only afforded six pages. It feels like an early sketch rather than a story, an idea that she meant to get back to. There are a couple of others – The Time of the Large Star, A Summer Night’s Kiss – that are similar, they’re just too short and abstract to work. 

Life Ceremony will appease readers’ appetite for Murata’s fantastically strange fiction but there is a sense that she feels more comfortable with novels, the longer page count meaning she can really delve deep into her sick little mind. 

Barry Pierce is a journalist and cultural commentator

You can buy Life Ceremony from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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