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Dark Tales of Strangeness in Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is the darkest, strangest book I’ve read in a very long time.

I found it in the library when I was scouting around for Japanese authors I could read for Japanese Literature Challenge #13. I’d read one book by Yoko Ogawa previously (The Housekeeper and the Professor) and thoroughly enjoyed it so this seemed a good bet. But I didn’t realise that Revenge isn’t a novel but a collection of eleven tales featuring characters who are seemingly disconnected.

As you read on, you realise that the lives of these hospital workers, schoolchildren, writers, hairdressers and bakers are linked by recurring images and motifs. Each story follows on from the previous one, becoming increasingly unsettling and rather macabre.

You wouldn’t know that from the first story “Afternoon at the Bakery” which is about a woman who goes to a bakery one sunny Sunday afternoon to buy two strawberry cakes. One for her and one for her son. While waiting to be served she gets into a conversation with another customer, a trader in spices, who is a regular at the bakery:

“I can guarantee they’re good. The best thing in the shop. The base is made with our special vanilla.”

“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”

“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”

This innocent chit chat suddenly turns darker with the first customer’s response:

Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.

Supernatural and Normal Lie Together

And with that one line, Yoko Ogawa turns the whole story on its head. It’s no longer a feel-good tale of an adoring mother wanting to buy just the perfect cake for her son, but one of tragedy and inconsolable grief.

This tale is the jumping off point for our immersion into a world in which eeriness and normality live side by side. The shock of the grotesque and unnerving is evident in all these tales.

In “Old Mrs J” for example an elderly woman digs up a carrot in the shape of a human hand: “It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed with a thick thumb and a longer finger in the middle.” Reading it you know this isn’t just one of those odd vegetables newspapers love to report on slow news days. But the significance doesn’t become apparent until right at the end when a body is discovered.

“Welcome to The Museum of Torture” introduces us to an ex butler who has become the self appointed curator of a collection of torture instruments. As he takes his latest visitor around, detailing the ways in which each instrument is used, she begins to imagine – with glee – using the them upon the boyfriend who’s just dumped her.

In the tale which I found the most unsettling, “Sewing For The Heart“; the narrator is a maker of bags and purses. He lives a simple life above his shop, spending his evenings sat at the window looking down on the passers-by. But his life changes when a customer, a night club singer, arrives asking him to make a pouch to hold the heart that lies outside her body.

And so begins an obsession; an overwhelming desire “to run my fingertips over each tiny bump and furrow, touch my lips to the veins, soft tissue on soft tissue ….” The pride he takes in his craftsmanship is destroyed however when the customer learns she can have surgery that will mean she no longer needs the leather bag; a development that propels him to seek revenge.

Dark Slice of Life

These stories have a cumulative effect as a detail from one carries over into the next. A dead hamster in one story turns up in the rubbish bin in the next tale and the abandoned fridge in which the child mentioned in “Afternoon at the Bakery” met his death, makes an appearance on the final page of he collection.

Sometimes the connection is hinted at rather than made explicit. “Lab Coats” for example ends with a hospital worker confessing how she killed her boyfriend, a respiratory medicine doctor, because he wouldn’t divorce his wife. The next tale, “Sewing For The Heart” begins with repeated pager messages for a respiratory doctor who is meant to be on duty but can’t be found. Two stories later and a different narrator learns that the doctor upstairs has been been killed.

The overall effect is chilling. In one line from the story called “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” the narrator, after reading “Afternoon at the Bakery,” remarks: “there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.”

Interest Wanes

Except that I didn’t feel I did want to plunge into these tales. I admit I am not the target audience for Revenge since I’m not a fan of short stories generally nor am I a fan of creepy, macabre kind of tales. I wouldn’t honestly have read this if I’d paid more attention to the description on the back cover.

I admired the way Yoko Ogawa wove these stories together, joining all the details seamlessly. I admired too, the precision of her language, which evokes atmosphere with just slight touches. But I didn’t enjoy the book. I kept wondering what point Ogawa was trying to make. That we’re all capable of revenge? That appearances can be deceptive? I got to the end and I was no clearer on the message. Without a driving theme, the book just seemed to rely on spookiness and oddities. After a while this became repetitive and I found myself just wanting to get to the end quickly.

Exquisite. The Haunting Beauty of Shell by Kristina Olsson

Shell by Kristina Olsson

Whoever selected the title for Kristina Olsson’s superb third novel ,Shell, made an inspired choice.  

The title perfectly captures the fragility of her two protagonists, a Swedish glassmaker and the fiercely independent Australian journalist. Pearl Keogh. But it also has an affinity with the principal design feature of the iconic Sydney Opera House whose construction forms a background to the novel. 

The year is 1965. Construction of the opera house is mired in controversy amid complaints of spiralling costs and aversion to its unusual design. A newly-elected government begins to put pressure on the Danish-born architect Jørn Utzon to cut costs and speed up completion. I had no idea until I read Shell that there was so much controversy surrounding the construction or criticism directed at the architect.

Anti War Feelings

The Opera House project is not the only contentious issue occupying the attention of the media. The country has entered the war in Vietnam and young Australian men are being conscripted to alongside American allies.

Pearl Keogh is ideologically opposed to the war, taking to the streets to voice her opinion in anti-war demonstrations. Though she has a social conscience she also has a more personal reason for her opposition. She has two young brothers who are the right age to be called up. She lost them when they disappeared into the welfare system after their mother died. Her nights are filled with nightmares that she may never find them again.

Her path converges with Axel Lundquist, a young Swedish glassmaker brought to Sydney to create a glass sculpture for the opera house.

A Life Of Gaps

Like Pearl, Lundquist has a gap, an absence, in his life.  He views Utzon as an inspiration and is desperate to meet the man in the flesh. He wants to understand his vision and his inspiration. His desire borders on obsession, taking him on solitary walks around the harbour and to a remote coastal settlement as he follows up on reports of possible sitings. In the absence of a physical meeting with his guru, Lundquist must turn to the building itself for answers.

… what had begun as a mundane assembly of materials – sand, and lime and pebble – was now a thing of beauty, a ceiling of ships. Sitting here was like being underwater, looking up at the hulls of twenty boats floating side by side. Or the corrugations in mudflats left by a departing tide.

Until then he had thought concrete brutal. Used internally it was a material of expedience, easy and cheap. But here it was as tactile as fabric, evocative as wood.

As construction progresses, his appreciation deepens further that this is far more than just a building.

… he closed his eyes. And opened them to a vision: the new building lifting its wings above the land, the water, above all those heads that didn’t know. not yet, what it might say about them. How free they were to become who they were, or could be.

Shell Will Grow On You

This is a novel that takes a little time to fully appreciate. The storyline is discontinuous and I was confused at times by some of the episodes involving Pear. But gradually it hooked me in.

The book really comes alive when we get access to Lundquist’s thought process as he imagines a sculpture matching the beauty and extraordinary characteristics of Utzon’s design creation.

There were some particularly interesting insights on Australian attitudes to its cultural heritage. Lundquist grows to like Sydney, a city whose sandstone buildings look to him ” like a painted set, a picture from a child’s schoolbook”. But he’s disappointed that for all the bright veneer, parks and neat streets, the city has lost its connection to the past, the feeling that:

Beneath this layer of living, this past two hundred years, were the traces of that older civilisation, a thick network of paths and habitation, the tracks of people and animals.

He expands on this later on in the novel:

‘Australians appeared to have no myths of their own, no stories to pass down. He’d read about the myths of indigenous people, the notion of a Dreaming and the intricate stories it comprised. He wondered if Utzon knew these legends, their history in this place. Had he known anything of Aboriginal people when he designed his building? As he sat down and drew shapes that could turn a place sacred? Turn its people poetic: their eyes to a harbour newly revealed by the building, its depths and colours new to them, and surprising. Perhaps that was what the architect was doing here: creating a kind of Dreaming, a shape and structure that would explain these people to themselves. Perhaps the building was just that: a secular bible, a Rosetta stone, a treaty. A story to be handed down. If people would bother to look. If they’d bother to see.’

Kristina Olsson has some exquisite turns of phrase; the Opera House for example is variously described as “a bowl, newly shattered”, “bleached bones against the paling sky” and “as if the architect had once held a shell to his ear, and heard as well as seen the design”. I’ve never visited Sydney myself but Olsson’s precise descriptions of the magnificence of this structure had me desperately hoping I can get there soon.

Though I enjoyed the themes and warmed to the characters, there’s no getting away from the fact that the knock out element of this novel really is the portrayal of that building. It towers over everything: an emerging beauty capable of producing a deep emotional reaction but also suggesting possibilities and potential.

As Lindquist describes it:

Everywhere he looked he saw what Utzon saw. The drama of harbour and horizon, and at night, the star-clotted sky. It held the shape of the possible, of a promise made and waiting to be kept.

I hadn’t heard of Kristina Olsson until I saw Lisa’s blog post on ANZLitLovers’ blog I’ve learned that if Lisa describes a book as ‘sensational’ and her book of the year, then it’s one I definitely should read. Thanks Lisa for giving me such a hauntingly beautiful reading experience.

Shell by Kristina Olsson: Endnotes

Kristina Olsson is an Australian journalist and teacher. Her first novel In One Skin was published  in 2001. She followed this with the biography Kilroy Was Here, which told the story of Debbie Kilroy. In 2010 her novel The China Garden won the Barbara Jefferis Award, which is offered annually for Australian novels which depict women and girls positively, or empower the position of women in society.

The Cove: A Lyrical Haunting Narrative of Man Against the Elements

The Cove by Cynan Jones

Cynan Jones’ The Cove is less than 100 pages long but it’s packed with intensely atmospheric prose that sucks you in from the first paragraph and doesn’t let you go.

It begins with a short prologue in which a woman stands on a shore waiting for the result of a rescue mission out in the bay. The focus then shifts to a man adrift in a kayak, having been caught in a sudden storm and struck by lightening

When he regains consciousness, he has no knowledge of how much time has elapsed or how far he is from the cove. He’s disorientated, badly injured, has no food and a minimum of water. The only equipment at his disposal is his fishing line and a frying pan.

The odds are against him but his instinct for survival is strengthened by his overwhelming love for the woman and unborn child waiting for him back on land.

The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.

Getting in Close

This is prose that is slowly, almost microscopically rendered. Cynan Jones makes us feel as if we’re in the kayak with this man, shadowing every small action that he hopes will help him to survive.

He clipped the line that was attached to the hook to the feather trace and moved the weight so it was linked from the baited hook. Then he threw out the rig and let out the line.

His disorientation renders him unable to focus on practicalities for any length of time. Without a clock or a watch, time has in fact ceased to have any meaning: “he thinks of whiles, moments – things less measurable.”

As he drifts in and out of consciousness, he contemplates the way the life beneath the waves comes “alive like a living skin“; with the fin of a sunfish “folding, flopping” and a flock of jellyfish floating “like negligees.” And he reflects on his life; the father whose ashes he had taken with him in the kayak to scatter upon the water; the woman waiting for him on the shore.

Memories are triggered by small discoveries. At one point he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone, an object that reminds him of his partner who has a similar feather. The glimpses of the past and of a new future give him the strength to try and survive.

Economical But Lyrical Prose

Every word in The Cove has been carefully selected. It’s a terse economical style yet still rich in imagery, metaphors and similies. He has for example a a sense of himself as “a fly trapped the wrong side of glass” with a  “memory like a dropped pack of cards.”  He can recall the beginning of the journey and drifting out to sea but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”

This is a haunting novel. Though it’s more than a year since I read The Cove I still remember the atmosphere and the imagery so clearly. It’s now joined a very elite group of contemporary novels that I am certain to re-read.

Tense And Absorbing: Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

If you enjoy taut, high octane thrillers with good characterisation, Wicked Game by Matt Johnson is the perfect fit.

Johnson takes us into the covert world of national security and intelligence services through the figure of Robert Finlay. He’s an ex SAS operative who thought he had left those days behind him, his past cloaked with the secrecy of a role in the Royalty Protection Service. Even his wife doesn’t know about his involvement in surveillance of IRA suspects or hostage negotiations.

But his first day in a new job, as a police inspector in one of the London suburbs, is marked by a wave of attacks on police officers in the capital. Finlay learns there is a real and present danger that his cover has been blown and he could be the next target. What he doesn’t know is the identity of the assassin/s. He made enemies during his time in Northern Ireland. Could this be an IRA revenge attack for his activities in Northern Ireland. Or is there a connection to his previous involvement in ending a siege at the Iranian embassy?

Finlay’s quest to find the answers and kill the assassin/s before they get to him, makes Wicked Game a tremendous page turner.

It has a complex plot and, since this is the murky world of intelligence and counter intelligence, more than one character we’re not sure we can trust.

Finlay is a well crafted character. He’s intelligent,; thinks fast on his feet and is a good marksman. But he’s also vulnerable; caught between his love for his wife and young child and his desire to hunt down his attackers.

What lifts Wicked Game far above many other thrillers, is its strong sense of authenticity. The book is packed with fascinating details about surveillance techniques. Who knew for example that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the army officers’s cars were regularly repainted so they wouldn’t get tracked by IRA shooters.

This is a world that Matt Johnson writes about with authority. And that’s because this was his world for 25 years. He was a soldier and then a serving officer with the Metropolitan Police, a witness to acts of terrorism and attrocity.

In 1999 he was officially diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and discharged from the police so that he could receive treatment. He turned to writing at the encouragement of his counsellor.

Wicked Game was the result. The book was a word of mouth success when it was self published in 2012. Matt was then spotted by Orenda Books who published it under their imprint in 2015 and have also published his next two titles. Deadly Game and End Game, both featuring Robert Finlay.

I’m keen to read these next two books in the series. But first I have to catch up on all the sleep I missed because I kept reading Wicked Game way into the early hours.

Although I’m not a big fan of thrillers, this was a gripping read. I am however left with a puzzle. This is a novel that has garnered praise from many quarters – my copy of the book has testimonials and praise from some highly respected authors like David Young (author of Stasi Child) and Peter James (Chief Inspector Roy Grace series). With that kind of commendation i’m baffled why Matt Johnson hasn’t received a lot more attention.

Three Hours Of Tense Drama In A School Under Siege [book review]

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

When you despatch your children through the school gates each morning, you trust they’re heading into a safe environment. That nothing beyond those gate will put them in danger. Rosamund Lupton‘s debut novel Three Hours turns that belief on its head.

It’s 9.15am one cold, snowy November morning at the Cliff Heights School in rural Somerset. The morning’s session has barely begun when shots are fired. Headmaster Matthew Marr lies in a pool of blood, powerless to protect his students from the armed gunman who paces the school’s corridors. Unknown to him, accomplices hide in the surrounding woods intent on causing further harm.

Disturbingly Plausible Scenario

The disturbing scenario of Three Hours is one that’s frighteningly familiar from TV news images of school shootings like those at Dunblane Primary School in 1996 and Columbine High School in 1999.

Rosamund Lupton takes us behind those headlines to examine the reactions of people caught up in a similar attack. Hour by hour we share the fears of the students and staff trapped at the Cliff Heights school; the anxiety of parents waiting for news and the frustrations of police officers tasked with ending the siege without further bloodshed.

In the midst of their fear lies bewilderment about the identity and the motivation of the gunmen. Are they terrorists or someone with a grudge against the school? Is the entire school the target or are the attackers after two pupils only: the brothers Rafi and Basi Bukhari, both Muslim refugees from Aleppo?

An Unlikely Target

Three Hours is set in a high performing, well-funded liberal school that prides itself on its philosophy of tolerance, inclusivity and openness. It’s the last place anyone would expect to be targetted by extremists. As the deputy head tells the police psychologist drafted in to help identify the attackers:

We have safe spaces for debate, democracy in action through the school council … tolerance is an integral part of the school. It’s why we don’t have a uniform and the students are free to practice whatever religion they choose, or none.

But even these principles provide no protection against dark forces that actively encourage and support radical racist messages and actions. One morning, without warning, those forces are unleashed on the school’s sprawling campus.

Three Hours illustrates how radicalisation can happen anywhere and how extremist groups prey on susceptible minds, using complex technology platforms to cloak their identities. By the time the attack is over, pupils, teachers and parents will have had their beliefs and trust put to the severest test.

Courage In Face of Danger

But Rosamund Lupton also shows how love and courage prevail in the midst of danger and uncertainty. Some of the people involved find skills and strengths they never realised they had. Others discover who they truly are, what they believe in and for what they are willing to die.

In the school’s isolated theatre, one group of students press on with their rehearsal of Macbeth, finding that Shakespeare’s portrayal of ambition and murderous intent helps them deal with their own unfolding drama. In the pottery building, a 60-year-old teacher converts tables into a pretend house. While her class of lively seven-year-olds are diverted into making miniature clay cups and bowls, she makes clay tiles to protect them from flying glass. And in the library, sixth-former Hannah Jacobs strips to her bra, using her t shirt to stem the blood flowing from her headmaster’s body.

Healing Power of Love

The real hero of the school, and the epitome of selfless love is Rafi; the pupil who finds an explosive device in the school grounds, raises the alarm and shows the way to evacuate one building. The person who, warned by police advice that he might be a target, puts his life in danger to go in search of his younger brother missing in the woods.

Rafi suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his flight from Syria. But through his friendship with Hannah he is finding a way to put his life back together:

He thinks that a long time ago he was like a glass … clear and transparent, made of invisible love and he was filled with liquid running life, right to the brim.

… then he’d been beaten and ashamed and frightened and he was a thousand pieces scattered on a snow-covered pavement in Aleppo, an Egyptian beach, the deck of a boat, a migrant camp

But then he met a girl, loves this girl and each of those thousand pieces know their way back to their place in the glass, the cracks in him kaleidoscopes of light.

There’s much to admire in Three Hours, from the setting to the characterisation ( I was drawn particularly to Rafi) to the tightly controlled timescale. Lupton shows great skill in entering the minds of both children and adults, showing both their vulnerability and their resilience.

It’s evident too that the novel is based on some really sound research. Part of my career was spent managing crisis response so can vouch for Lupton’s description of police command procedures and the details of the school’s emergency plan.

All these factors mean Three Hours is an intense, riveting yet unsettling read. I suspect few parents with offspring still in the school system will read it and not experience a wave of anxiety.

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton: End Notes

Rosamund Lupton became a screenwriter after leaving Cambridge University. Her debut novel Sister, was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.

Rosamund Lupton

Three Hours is her fourth novel. It’s published by Penguin Viking in hardback and e-book on January 9, 2019 . My thanks to the publisher for the free copy I received via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Brilliant and beastly: the enigma of VS Naipaul

Reading Patrick French’s hefty biography of VS Naipaul brought back memories of my once playing Mahjong with incipient conjunctivitis; the game was challenging enough without the tile details going in and out of focus.

French’s writing style in general has little appeal for me – a little dry and academic and when he presents, as he often does in this tome, a lengthy, name-dropping paragraph, the hotchpotch of third-party comments and attributed quotes undermines clarity. Things become a little blurred – my response was often to skip ahead.

french bookPloughing through ‘The World Is What It Is’, I was also reminded of a lecturer long ago who recited his words of wisdom to us students while absently leafing through the pages of a newspaper. Like that academic, French is not, for me, a natural at engaging with his audience.

Published in 2008, this authorised biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author covers Naipaul’s life from his birth in1932 to his second marriage in 1996. The author, who won the Booker Prize for his novel ‘In a Free State’ (1971), died in 2018.

The biography’s title derives from the opening of Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River (1979):

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

The sentence, channeled through a fictional character, tells us much about the author’s view the world and his fellow travellers.

While French’s is not a hagiographical work, he is not overtly critical of his subject who was, it is clear from this book and other accounts, a difficult person to like.

Naipaul’s intelligent, unassuming wife Pat remained pitifully loyal to the author even though he treated her like a lowly servant.

You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station,’ he once cruelly barked at her. And then, in a moment of self-pitying regret, he wrote to her: ‘I love you, and I need you. Please don’t let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know.’

His ‘occasional lapses’ included habitual visits to prostitutes, furious and violent domestic outbursts, a perpetual haughtiness and taking up a long-term intimate association with another woman who became, effectively, a second wife. This was how he treated  his nearest and supposedly dearest. Others, friends, associates, publishers who crossed him and so on found themselves subject to the notorious Naipaul ‘blank’. They simply became non-persons; he did not just cut them, he did not notice them.

A hatchet job on Naipaul’s disagreeable qualities could fill a book. French’s commendably objective approach brings balance but there is no getting away from unpleasantness of the person under scrutiny. To take our minds off personality issues, French dwells at length on rather fringe and uninteresting threads – largely irrelevant family background and affairs, political machinations in Naipaul’s birth country of Trinidad, the humdrum details of foreign trips and so on.

Academics and professional reviewers will argue that such detail is necessary and required in a thorough biographical work. But that doesn’t make them any the less dull for the ordinary reader.

There is much here, rightly, about Naipaul’s output. The author’s work divides opinion among readers but I fall into the fan camp having enjoyed both his fiction (particularly ‘The Enigma of Arrival’) and non-fiction (‘An Area of Darkness’).

french

Patrick French

But French’s accounts of the critical reception of each book is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting. And this is where some of those confusing paragraphs tend to crop up. Like many biographers, French has laboured long on thorough research, having had complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa and spent many hours  conducting face-to-face unrestricted interviews with his subject. The word count demonstrates that French wants us to know how industrious he has been but the extraneous detail is overwhelming and of little interest to anyone not engaged in writing a dissertation on Naipaul.

Critics universally lauded ‘The World Is What It Is’ on its release in 2008 so my comments here are very much against the current. I admire French’s achievement in writing this comprehensive biography but I am left with little sense of really knowing or understanding the man who is its subject. Naipaul once remarked ‘whenever we are reading the biography of a writer … no amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there.’ 

Given Naipaul’s nature – elusive, mistrusting, narcissistic, aloof, judgemental – perhaps it is unavoidable that little of the real person comes across. Perhaps there was no real person. Perhaps the man was unknowable, even to himself. An enigma.

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