‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

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.

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16 thoughts on “‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa

  1. I feel the same way about short stories. I don’t seek them out but when I do get hold of a volume I generally enjoy them. For me, I think it is because I like to get fully engrossed in a book and the characters and, with short stories, you are just getting to this point when it is all over. I have started reading a short story collection called Diving Belles by Lucy Wood and I really am enjoying the stories – she has a very unique perspective of the world and her stories are all rather mythical.

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  2. I am really looking forward to reading this book. I still have a couple of other books by this author to read before I get to this one I suspect.

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  3. Ah, I havent seen Stus review… Im spending too much time in front of screens, so am only reading blogs once-a-week otherwise my brain and eyes hurt too much. Ill check out Stus review next time I go through my RSS reader.
    Hope you get to read this book, Lisa. Would love to know what you think of it. Im going to hang on to mine. I think Id like to re-read it at some point, because Im sure there are connections/links I missed.

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  4. I love your book’s cover, the American one is rather dull, but nonetheless I ordered it and now I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’ve only read 2 of Ogawa’s works, but those two books wowed me so much, that I automatically ordered Revenge when I heard about it. After reading your post, I know that I am going to love it! I’m so excited!! Great review!!

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  5. I posted this today as well ,I loved the interlinking motifs throughout so well done ,I was remind a bit of Dahl’s adult stories a similar feel of strangness in these stories ,all the best stu

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  6. I experience that same inexplicable resistance to short story collections, too. I think you may be the first person I’ve heard describe it so well. I loved Pretty Monsters, which I believe I discovered through this blog(?). It was one of my favorite reads last year, along with Daniel Orozco’s Orientation. Yet I keep passing over the short stories when I am deciding what to take from the To Read shelf!

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  7. This has a prominent position on my radar having enjoyed The Diving Pool & The Housekeeper & the Professor, although I need to read my copy of the Hotel Iris first.

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  8. I’m so glad you liked it. I’m even happier to read that it’s good for those that aren’t big fans of short stories (I’m not either). I’m trying to refrain from sitting down in and devouring this book in one go!

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  9. I think that’s probably why I’m never that keen to read short stories; I feel like I just get to know the characters and then I have to say goodbye to them!
    Have heard some very good things about Diving Belles… need to read it myself at some point, I think.

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  10. Oh yes, Pretty Monsters was an awesome collection of short stories. Not heard of Daniel Orozco’s Orientation — must look it up. Thanks for the tip off.

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