The Hundred-Yen Singer, by Naomi Suenaga

Chick-lit with a Far East twist
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The Independent Culture

In British bookstores, if you pick up a novel about a thirty-something woman dreaming of career fulfilment and fretting about her relationship with a married man, chances are you're holding a one-plot-fits-all volume of chick-lit. In Japan, you might be lucky enough to find yourself with Naomi Suenaga's The Hundred-Yen Singer, a novel that takes chick-lit and fashions it into something mischievous and beguiling.

Towards the story's end, Rinka Kazuki, the 32-going-on-20 singer of the title, decides she needs a new stage kimono. She buys metres of black lace and runs up an unorthodox one - almost see-through - that drives her audience wild. Similarly, Suenaga takes the most unfashionable of Japan's art forms - emotive enka folk-song - and dresses it in a tale that's an unexpected treat.

Unexpected, because many young Japanese female novelists get pigeonholed into writing about the sleazier side of Japan's "entertainment" industry. Nothing could be further from those bleak narratives than Suenaga's joie de vivre. Rinka is all heart - a heart firmly pinned to the flapping kimono sleeve in which she hides her tips. She's also a deliciously mordant commentator on her curious world.

Rinka drags her trolley full of wigs and outfits to spas and bars around the country. She teams up with other misfits of the entertainment circuit: baby-faced MC Moody Konami, and "Kenjiro and Dave", billed as a Japanese-American duo though Dave is a Filipino illegal immigrant.

Chick-lit is about achieving the dream: that perfect fiancé, that perfect job. But The Hundred-Yen Singer asks whether we truly want what we dream of. Rinka is proud of her second-rate life. The high-points of her wretchedly paid job, her happiness with a man who will never leave his wife, her affection for her colleagues and fans all sustain her. If never quite enough, they are nonetheless good enough for now.

The Hundred-Yen Singer is part of a Japanese project that commissions translations and offers them to international publishers. In the UK it was picked up by independent Peter Owen, which should be applauded. In Rinka's world, they'd receive a small token of appreciation, too - a hundred-yen coin offered between the tips of disposable chopsticks.

Victoria James's 'Haiku Inspiration' is published by Duncan Baird

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