Reading Hotel Iris, the latest Yoko Ogawa book to be published in English, may be quite a jarring experience for those who have read Ogawa’s last novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor. Although they share a common theme of unconventional love, the two works could not be more dissimilar in tone and atmosphere. The Housekeeper and the Professor is light and heartwarming with a touch of the bittersweet. Hotel Iris, on the other hand, is dark and twisted, with only a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Mari, the narrator, is a seventeen-year old girl living in a remote seaside town, working the front desk of the family hotel with only her controlling mother and a part-time, kleptomaniac maid. For better or worse her father is long dead, as is the grandfather who helped raise her afterward. Her life is suddenly shook up when a fight between a middle-aged man and the prostitute he hired erupts in the middle of the night. Mari is drawn to this mysterious and harsh man, a widow and Russian translator who lives alone on a nearby island, and so she seeks him out. Thus begins the strange and twisted relationship between the two that is the focus of the rest of the novel. The mood for the entire work is established immediately:
He first came to the Iris one day just before the beginning of the summer season. The rain had been falling since dawn. It grew heavier at dusk, and the sea was rough and gray. A gust blew open the door, and rain soaked the carpet in the lobby. The shopkeepers in the neighborhood had turned off their neon signs along the empty streets. A car passed from time to time, its headlights shining through the raindrops.
I was about to lock up the cash register and turn out the lights in the lobby, when I heard something heavy hitting the floor above, followed by a woman’s scream. It was a very long scream – so long that I started to wonder before it ended whether she wasn’t laughing instead.
Human emotion is a complicated business, and the bread and butter of any work that calls itself literature. And although Ogawa deftly handles and brings life to certain aspects of her characters’ contradictory behavior, at a slight hundred and seventy pages there isn’t enough room for the novel to really grow. A work of such short length and heavy atmosphere must be tight and honed to a razor’s edge; unfortunately, only half of what is there is as effective as it should be, and even that could be attributed to the shock value of some of the sequences.
Ultimately, the novel’s biggest downfall is that the novel is too short to really see what makes the characters tick, and what little that is there is too broad and dramatic to be effective. It’s as if Ogawa told herself she could only write two hundred pages and used trauma as a lazy shortcut to establish what could have been very sympathetic characters (see the all-too-brief introduction of the translator’s mute nephew, by far the most interesting character, who regrettably can only stick around for forty pages). There are times where Ogawa’s strong sense of human emotion shines through, and passages where her writing (with the help of Stephen Snyder’s able translation) has the punch Hotel Iris needs. But sadly, these moments are too infrequent and the work too short to be a truly effective piece of fiction.