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.”
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.
For the first time in 2020 I’m sharing with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next.
What I’m reading now
Last year I had the opportunity to listen to Matt Johnson, an author from Wales, explain how writing had helped him deal with post traumatic stress disorder. Matt had served in the army in Northern Ireland and then as a senior police officer in London, both experiences taking a toll on his mental health.
I’ve now been reading his debut novel: Wicked Game. It’s a fast-paced novel that draws on his experiences in the front line through the character of former special forces operative Robert Finlay. He’s just moved from the Royalty Protection team to a new job as a police inspector in a London suburb. But his past involvement in a terrorist siege is putting his new life in danger.
Matt self published this novel in 2012 but in 2015 it was picked up by Orenda Books – they also published his next two titles.
I’m half way through and can’t help wonder why we haven’t heard more noise about this author.
My current audiobook is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It’s an extraordinary book. Kalanithi wrote it after he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 35 when he was on the verge of completing a decade of training as a neurosurgeon. He didn’t live long enough to see it published.
It’s more than a memoir about a man facing mortality; it’s a meditation on life; the relationship between doctor and patient, and the intersection of science and literature.
This is such a deeply moving book that I have to take it in small doses.
What I just finished reading
The year got off to a fabulous start with The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
But then it came crashing down with two books I had to abandon.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was the book club choice for January. As a fantasy novel it was always going to be a challenge for me but I was willing to give it a go. After 50 pages I’d had enough. It had neither a plot or characters that interested me, nor was it particularly well written.
My attention turned to Independence Square by A. D Miller which is due to be published next month. I’d read his earlier, debut, novel Snowdrops set in post-Glasnost Russia and thought it was well paced and well observed but lacked good characterisation.
I expected he would have ironed out those flaws by his second novel only to find more of the same issues. His new book has a dual time narrative (frankly I’m getting rather tired of those now), moving between Ukraine at a time of political turmoil and London, 10 years later. Connecting the two threads is Simon Davey, a former senior British diplomat who lost his job because of something that happened in Kiev a decade earlier.
It had potential but fell far short of my expectations.
What I’ll read next
Usually this is a hard question because I simply don’t like to plan my reading.
But my reservation of the next book club selection Little by Edward Carey came through in the library. So of course when I went to collect it, I absolutely had to have a browse (yes you can roll your eyes given it was only a few days ago I said I had 264 unread books at home). And I found Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I’ve been keen to read more by her ever since experiencing The Housekeeper and The Professor. It’s currently the Japanese Literature Challenge so what a perfect opportunity to do just that with this novella.
That should keep me quiet for a little while.
Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
I’m always on the look out for writers outside the tradition of the western literary canon. So this article from Signature e-magazine was a welcome change from the usual fare of promotions – there is still a long way to go before literature in translation becomes part of our stable diet unfortunately.
The columnist Kate Schatz has found 10 women writers she thinks deserve more attention because they “have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature.” These are women she believes whose work show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.
The 10 come from Iran, Mexico, Palestine, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan Italy and Great Britain. I’m not convinced that Elena Ferrante needs any more exposure and Helen Oyeyemi surely doesn’t need an introduction? But there are certainly names on this list that are unfamiliar to me even if you all know them well.
Shahrnush Parsipur from Iran appeals, not because her novels weave use fantasy (not one of my favourite genres) but because she has been imprisoned for her writing. Reading her books is one form of protest I can make against her treatment.
The other writer who is calling to me is Doris Pilkington Garimara, an indigenous writer from Australia whose 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence sounds a remarkable story about a real-life episode in the country’s history – a government-sanctioned removal of mixed-race children from their families. This isn’t something from ancient history but occurred in the 20th century remarkably. I’ve been promising Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums that I would read more authors from their parts of the world. So this could be my chance (not promising it will happen any time soon though).
I also have a few names on my own list of authors I want to explore. This includes Dalene Matthee from South Africa whose novel Fiela’s Child which deals with ethnic acceptance I enjoyed last year. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from India who won the Booker prize in 1975 with Heat and Dust which I didn’t rate very highly but I wonder if that was really her best novel? And then of course there are my latest finds (Ok, I know I am late to this party) of Yoko Ogawa whose novella The Housekeeper and the Professor and Amelie Nothomb, who wrote Fear and Trembling gave me some of the most interesting reading this year.
I could go on….and on…. and on with names but don’t want to overwhelm you but just take a look at some of the recommendations from the bloggers in several countries that have done guest posts about literature from their country.More than enough for you to get your teeth into.