A couple of years ago I read Yoko Ogawa's Hotel Iris, a strangely beguiling and disturbing novel about an unhealthy relationship between a young woman and an older man.
Her latest book, Revenge, is just as beguiling and just as disturbing. It is published in the UK tomorrow (January 31), but it was first published in her native Japan in 1998 — I'm glad I wasn't holding my breath for the English translation! I do, however, think it was worth the wait.
Eleven dark tales
But first, let's get one thing clear. Revenge is not a novel but a series of interlinked short stories. The tag line on the frontispiece of my proof edition describes them as "Eleven dark tales" — and that's exactly what they are.
I should probably point out that I am not a massive fan of short stories, in the sense that I don't tend to seek them out, yet whenever I read a short story collection — and I've read several over the past few years — I tend to enjoy them very much. I don't quite understand my own prejudice, especially when I pick up a collection as exquisite as this one and revel in each and every story. I then wonder why I don't read more of the genre.
But Revenge is not your average collection of disparate stories sandwiched together under the same binding. There are recurring motifs and images throughout, and characters move from one tale to another, which gives some semblance of a narrative thread, but mostly these tales work by what they do inside your head. I'm not sure I can explain it very well, but reading this book is a bit like experiencing a rather lucid dream punctuated by a recurring sense of déjà vu.
For instance, in one story there is mention of an abandoned post office filled with kiwi fruit. In another story you come to find out how those kiwi fruit came to be stored in the building and who put them there. In a later story someone eats a kiwi fruit.
It's the same with strawberry shortcake. In the opening story a woman enters a bakery to buy a strawberry shortcake to mark her late son's birthday, something she's been doing ever since his death more than a decade earlier. In another story, a character eats a strawberry shortcake. Further into the book, the bakery is mentioned several times.
A book filled with lightbulb moments
The effect of reading this book is this: you end up holding a million images in your head and when you recognise the links — between characters, settings and themes — it's like a lightbulb going off. I had to stop myself from saying "a-ha!" every 10 or so pages as various aspects slotted into place.
It's not gimmicky though. In fact, Ogawa writes in such a lovely, poetic, mesmerising (and entirely understated) way I found myself being lulled into an almost hypnotic state as I read this.
That said, there are some gruesome images in this book and many of the characters behave in cruel and often inexplicable ways. There's even a macabre murder, something that caught me completely by surprise and was all the more effective for having shocked me so unexpectedly.
Loss and alienation
As ever with contemporary Japanese fiction, the text is pervaded by an aching sense of loss and alienation. People behave oddly towards one another and there are huge gaps in understanding between the old and young, men and women. (I have to note that many of the stories are written in the first person and the gender of the narrator is not always clear — I was often surprised to discover that midway through the story someone I thought was male was female, and vice versa.)
I suspect fans of Japanese fiction, and Yoko Ogawa in particular, will enjoy this collection very much, but anyone fascinated by writing — the act of doing it, the creative aspects of it, the nuts and bolts of it — will love the way Revenge constantly exposes the illusion of fiction. More please.
I know I cut it very fine, but I read this book as part of January in Japan organised by Tony of Tony's Reading List. If you are looking for further Japanese literature inspiration do check out his dedicated J-lit blog.