When it comes to Japanese fiction the number of authors I have read could be counted on just one hand. I know my sample is not statistically significant, but I’ve found Japanese fiction hugely enjoyable. I have particularly appreciated the simple but elegant prose style and the sometimes dark and eerie subject matter. I’m not sure if that’s a distinctively Japanese trademark, but it seems like every Japanese novel I’ve read has married the beautiful with the terrifying.
Enter Yoko Ogawa‘s latest novel Hotel Iris. This slim book is both strange and lovely. I ate it up on a lovely sunny afternoon, sitting by a pond in Richmond Park. The pleasant and pretty location in which I read it was such a contrast to the occasionally ugly content of the novel.
In the story we meet 17-year-old Mari, who is under the thumb of her overbearing mother. Together they run a hotel on the Japanese coast, although Mari mainly works the front desk and runs errands.
Late one evening there’s a scene in the hotel. A screaming woman is thrown out of Room 202 and lies on the floor hurling abuse at a man who is still inside the room.
Her insults stopped for a moment, but then a pillow flew out of the room, hitting her square in the face, and the screaming started all over again. The pillow lay on the landing, smeared with lipstick. Roused by the noise, a few guests had now gathered in the hall in their pajamas. My mother appeared from our apartment in the back.
“You pervert! Creep! You’re not fit for a cat in heat.” The prostitute’s voice, ragged and hoarse with tears, dissolved into coughs and sobs as one object after another came flying out of the room: a hanger, a crumpled bra, the missing high heel, a handbag.
Both the woman, and her male companion, are ejected from the hotel. But a few days later, when Mari spies the man buying toothpaste at a housewares shop, she inexplicably decides to follow him. He knows he is being followed and confronts her. Then, in a weird twist, the pair strike up an unlikely friendship. It’s unlikely, because the man is 50 years her senior and he’s not exactly normal. Not only is he prone to unexpected rages, he has a few sexual quirks that seem almost psychopathic.
But it’s that very danger which attracts Mari. She’s so young, inexperienced and naive, she seems blissfully unaware of the jeopardy awaiting her. As the relationship becomes more and more dependent, and Mari enters a darker and more twisted world, you wish her mother, usually so controlling, would step in and sort things out. But her mother seems blind to Mari’s cover — that her time spent with the man is spent caring for an elderly woman.
And yet, despite the illicit and sexually deviant nature of their affair, there’s something almost tender and touching about it too. That Ogawa manages to convey that without going into extravagant detail is an achievement in itself.
Ogawa is very good at scene setting, too, conveying the noise, clamour and heat of a Japanese seaside resort in just a few short sentences.
The tide was out, and the seawall was half exposed, a jagged edge against the calm surface of the sea. Some children had scrambled up to the highest point and were jumping into the water one after the other. White spray billowed up each time one of them hit the surface, but I was too far away to hear the splash. The shorebirds, as if imitating the children, plunged into the sea in search of fish.
But what I like most about Hotel Iris is the restrained style of the narrative. Everything is held perfectly in check. And yet it brims with tension. Will Mari be okay? Will her boyfriend turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?
This is the kind of novel that left me with a strange after taste, but it’s also one that makes me want to explore more of this fascinating author’s work.