Book Review - Revenge

In Yoko Ogawa’s haunting collection of eleven revenge tales, the acts of retribution are often crimes of passion but they are chilling in their brutality. Ogawa evidently likes to discomfort her readers; Hotel Iris (reviewed in the TLS, June 18, 2010), her previous book to be translated into English by Stephen Snyder, concerned the sadomasochistic relationship between a sixty-year-old man and a teenager. Her stories defy neat categorization, but obsession is a dominant theme.

In Revenge, trivial incidents of everyday life become distorted by macabre events. In the opening story, a woman goes to a bakery to buy two slices of strawberry shortcake for her son’s sixth birthday. She tells another customer that her child died twelve years ago – suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator.

Ogawa knits her stories together with recurring motifs and characters. Disparate lives are linked through various murders. In “Lab Coats” a hospital secretary talks of killing her surgeon lover after he decides to stay with his pregnant wife, but it is only in another story that we learn the details of his gruesome murder. In “Sewing for the Heart” a bag maker is given a peculiar  commission. When his client cancels her order, he is driven to kill her as she waits for her surgeon to perform a life-changing operation.

The frequent reappearance of an unnamed writer adds another meta-fictional layer. In “Old Mrs J” a writer describes how her landlady harvests hand-shaped carrots from her lovingly tended garden, before the corpse of her husband is uncovered – minus his hands. In “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” the same enigmatic character befriends a journalist in a hotel. Fearful that her stories will be stolen, the writer wraps her manuscripts in silk and carries them with her wherever she goes. In another tale, she features in the recollections of a young man travelling to his stepmother’s funeral.

Many of Ogawa’s characters are ordinary people who, like the writer, are struggling to find meaning in their lives. They are either profoundly affected by their encounters with others or find themselves overtaken by extraordinary events. In the final tale, “Poison Plants”, an old woman becomes fixated with a young man training as a composer. She is devastated when he abruptly stops paying her visits. Grief-stricken, she walks to the top of a hill where she discovers a body trapped in an industrial refrigerator.

Using economical and precise language, Ogawa conveys intensity of emotion. In “Fruit Juice” a schoolgirl gorges on kiwis: “She consumed them like a starving child, dizzy with hunger. Her carefully ironed blouse and her beautiful hands grew sticky. I could only watch and wait until she ate through her sadness”. In the next story, a kiwi orchard is described with a poetic intensity: “on moonlit nights when the wind was blowing, the whole hillside would tremble as though covered with a swarm of dark green bats. At times I found myself thinking they might fly away at any moment”.

Ogawa’s landscapes are frequently bizarre and contain startling images: a woman, on her way to confront her husband’s mistress, stumbles across an old man in a garden tending to a dying Bengal tiger; another female protagonist is born with her heart outside her chest; tomatoes from an overturned truck are smeared across the road like blood. Fruit is a frequent metaphor in the collection, and its appearances imbue Ogawa’s dark subject matter with unsettling splashes of colour.

Originally published in the TLS