I have to admit right upfront that I was disappointed by this book. I had such high hopes based on all the people involved, the fact that it’s a 2008 Reading the World title, the pretty cover (which Picador is plastering everywhere these days), the blurb from Kenzaburo Oe, etc. In the end though, this just simply isn’t my sort of book. (Although I do want to applaud the spectacular job Stephen Snyder did in translating this.)
According to the flap copy, Yoko Ogawa is the author of over twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, which makes me curious as to why Picador decided to introduce her with this collection of three novellas. And “novellas” is a bit of a stretch . . . each piece is pretty short—around 50 very white-space heavy pages long—and all three read more like short stories than novellas.
Not that there’s a distinct difference between a long short story and a novella, although to me a novella is more complicated thematically, structurally, etc. This is a real broad generalization, I know, but one of the things that bugged me about this book is the singular focus of the plot and characterization.
A good example of this can be found in the title story, which is about a young woman whose parents run an orphanage, and a young man she has feelings who is a diver. The story itself is very constrained and well-crafted with a sinister touch (more on that in a minute), but the constant references to diving get a bit tired. Sure, there’s a subtext to all of their conversations about diving, but when they meet up late at night and “share a moment,” this starts to get a bit ridiculous:
“For some reason, when I’m washing my suits and the house is still, I can think about diving.”
“I go over the dives in my head—the approach, the timing of the bounce, the entrance.” His hands went on with their work as he talked. “If you picture a perfect dive over and over in your head, then when you get up on the board you feel as though you can actually do it.” [. . .]
“You love to dive, don’t you?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I do,” he said. Two words, but they echoed inside me. If I could have just those two words all to myself, I felt I would be at peace.
Uh, OK. And this by itself might be fine, but this is probably the fifth diving conversation in thirty pages . . . And then, two pages later, they share a memory of diving into the snow that blew in through cracks in the roof and filled the hallway. . .
This same thing happens in “Pregnancy Diary,” in which the main character’s sister is characterized almost exclusively by her relationship to food throughout her pregnancy.
All three of these stories are told by overlooked characters: a girl with parents growing up in an orphanage, a woman whose pregnant sister and husband come to live with her, a woman whose husband is paving the way for their relocation to Sweden. And all three stories have a sinister undertone, generally involving the idea of the main character poisoning someone. (The final line of “Pregnancy Diary” encapsulates this demented undercurrent: “I set off toward the nursery to meet my sister’s ruined child.”)
This controlled creepiness is the best aspect of the book, and really comes to the forefront in “Dormitory,” the last novella, and by far the best. Much more ambiguous and disturbing than the previous two, it points to a more sophisticated, intriguing style of writing that may well be evident in Ogawa’s other books.
And it’s completely possible that her other works aren’t quite so representative of what’s boring about contemporary realistic writing. Contemporary Japanese Writers Vol. 1—produced by the J-Lit folks and featuring tons of Japanese writers—has a nice overview that includes a bit on Hotel Iris a “sensual, sadomasochistic” novel about a decrepit old man and a young girl that sounds in keeping with what I liked about “Dormitory.”
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