The first-person narrator, a woman in her mid-thirties who quit her previous job after experiencing symptoms of burnout, tries out five unusual workplaces one after the other for one month at a time. Each receives its own chapter in the story. First is a surveillance job in which she spends long hours viewing footage recorded by hidden cameras. Next comes a job producing audio ads to be played over the PA systems in transit buses. Third is a job writing trivia clips to be printed on the backs of individually wrapped rice-cracker packages. Fourth is a job going about neighborhood streets posting signs produced by various government agencies urging citizens to drive safely, conserve water, and so on. The fifth is a job in a large forest park, drawing up a map of the woodlands. A master of the workplace novel, author Kikuko Tsumura portrays each of the unusual occupations in compelling, realistic detail.
When the story opens the narrator has moved back in with her parents after quitting her previous job. When her unemployment benefits run out, she is still in recovery, but she knows she can’t remain idle forever and begins a half-hearted job search. Going to the unemployment office, she asks for something “close to home and light, like watching collagen being extracted for use in beauty products.” The counselor responds by suggesting a job in surveillance. With instructions to report anything unusual that occurs, she is assigned to watch the movements of an author who spends all but a couple of hours each day working at home. Instead of a live feed, she reviews recordings from a day or two before. Since she is required to watch them at normal speed except when the subject is asleep, even with two streams going at a time it is monotonous work with long stretches of nothing to report, and the hours are long as well, since she must cover all the time the woman is awake. Authorities believe that an acquaintance of the subject has placed in her possession—though without her knowledge—some contraband that the acquaintance smuggled into the country. Initially, the video images the narrator reviews offer no clues.
As time goes by, the narrator feels almost as if she is living with the author and sharing her life. Then the author abruptly begins a general housecleaning and purging of her possessions in a manner that suggests some new urgency. The contraband in question is apparently hidden inside one of the countless DVD cases stacked about. The collection of DVDs is sold to a secondhand dealer, and thanks in part to the narrator’s actions, they are safely recovered. The mysterious article, not previously identified for the narrator, turns out to be sapphires from Madagascar. She receives a special bonus for her role, and her boss tells her she has great potential, but she declines to renew her contract. She feels she’s already had as much of this work as she can take. Another trip to the unemployment office leads to the next job she tries out . . .
In the final chapter, the narrator finds a homeless man her age named Sugai living in the forest park where she works. Sugai is a former medical social worker who succumbed to the stresses of his supervisory position one day and simply disappeared. His story serves to bring out the narrator’s own background: for 14 years after graduating from college, she, too, had endured the strenuous demands of being a social worker. No matter how committed a person may originally have been to their chosen field, they may sometimes lose their way and just want to get out. At the end of the story the narrator feels she is ready to end her recovery, and it appears she will soon return to work in the social welfare sector.
A serious treatment of issues relating to work, the workplace, and how the worker copes with them is punctuated by periodic bits of humor from the earnest narrator to make for an enjoyable read. It brings readers the positive, forward-looking message that no matter what the job, there’s no telling when an unexpected encounter might lead to the opening of a whole new chapter in one’s life.