Kikuko Tsumura's contemporary fiction novel There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job tackles the work culture that Japan is infamous for; the unnamed protagonist, a woman in her mid-thirties, spends a year going through temp jobs in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown. Her previous full-time position was one that she had held since she finished university, some fourteen years ago. The story, beautifully translated by Polly Barton, follows her as she handles various odd jobs, some mundane, and some absurd. It's a thoughtful and humorous novel that feels especially timely in the post-Covid-19 era that we are living in. As the novel progresses, bits and pieces of the protagonist's previous occupation are disclosed, with it cleverly only being fully revealed at the end. The conclusion is satisfying and answers a question that the reader might not have realised how strongly they were asking. Yet this reveal, done so brilliantly, is a case study in the power of secrets in fiction.
Secrets are, in a lot of ways, what breathe life into stories. What keeps a reader interested is the prospect of a revelation or insight, whether it be in the work itself or the writing’s ability to provoke one. Characters withhold knowledge from other characters. A kindness or cruelty? Or what is it exactly that a character is hiding, what is it that explains their unusual and unexplained behaviour? Does it implicate them? Or does it implicate someone they love? There exists an inherent relatability to secrets, we all have things that we would rather others didn’t know, for our own reasons.
Writers should have secrets from their readers too. They should carry bits and pieces of their characters and the worlds they build with them. Perhaps their protagonist likes a coconut and lemon cake from a nearby bakery but over the course of the story, they never get a chance to go there. Or they always pass by a house up the road with a loud radio that only seems to play 50s rock music. Throughout There’s No Such Thing the protagonist mentions the mental fatigue of her previous job and how she felt she had to escape it. The author will have that piece of knowledge stored away somewhere in the vast library of their mind as they write, so it will inform and help to colour the world of their story. Though in this case, the secret was revealed to the readers,
Your characters and worlds are so much more than what you put on a page. They are a part of you, and grow and exist in your mind. Human imagination is a beautiful thing. So go out there and write them. Keep them a secret if you want, but it might turn out to be one you want to share. I wish you luck.