Like Taichi Yamada, Yoko Ogawa has a way with ever so slightly off centre, detached narratives in which insinuation and subtle detail work together to create an air of mystery, intrigue and, more often than not, intellectual chills. Revenge, her latest book to be translated, is as good an example of her work as you’re likely to find.
Pitched as a book of short stories (the frontispage trumpets the presence herein of eleven dark tales), Revenge is more like a novel in the vein of Jim Crace’s The Devil’s Larder – and an enormous amount of pleasure is to be had in the links that exist between each story, characters flitting in the background like Timoleon Vieta, acts of murder, singing children, mysterious writers and quite possibly the least security conscious hospital in history all making repeated appearances.
We open, in ‘Afternoon in the Bakery’, with a lady looking to buy strawberry shortcakes on the anniversary of her young son’s death. There is a young lady crying in the back of the bakery whose story we hear later on in the book. Outside there are people gathering to watch figures dance and march as the nearby clock strikes the hour. In ‘Orange Juice’, a young man is invited to dine with a young woman – only to discover that lunch in question is in the company of the woman’s estranged father. After dinner, the young man is shown an abandoned post office full of kiwis, kiwis that surface in the following story, ‘Old Mrs J’, a murder mystery of sorts involving carrots shaped like hairy hands and a writer who goes on to recur in various guises, Count Olaf-like, throughout the rest of the book. ‘The Little Dustman’ skips forward somewhat, the writer of the previous story now dead, the narrator caught on a broken down train (in the company of a troupe of boys and girls given to breaking into song, who also appear later in the book) regaling is with a tale of a time when the writer was his step mother. ‘Lab Coats’ somewhat indirectly concerns a mistress who is fed up with her lover’s excuses (he told her he was stuck on a broken down train the previous night and it was the last straw). A later story informs us that a doctor was mysteriously stabbed to death. Another murder looms in ‘Sewing for the Heart’, which concerns a bag maker who is asked to construct an elaborate pouch for a beautiful woman born with her heart outside her body. ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’ may provoke eagle-eyed readers to wonder whether Ogawa has visited Prague recently (Prague being home to both a Museum of Torture and a clock tower with dancing and advancing figures) – but once again the events of the story (a couple argue, the woman finds herself taking a guided tour of the eponymous museum) spill out into subsequent tales, ‘The Man who Sold Braces’ and ‘The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger’.
By the time we reach ‘Tomatoes and the Full Moon’ and ‘Poison Plants’, Ogawa has twisted tales upon tales so many times that your head might be spinning. She’s certainly having a lot of fun and it’s very infectious. Does it all add up? Does it all make more sense than I can see? Quite possibly. Is it a charming and challenging and subtly exhilarating read? It is. Having read and been somewhat underwhelmed by her trio of novellas The Diving Pool, Revenge has more than reset the damage done. I’ll be making a beeline for The Housekeeper and the Professor and Hotel Iris just as soon as I’ve finished typing this.
Any Cop?: If you’ve yet to dabble with Ogawa yourself, Revenge seems an excellent place to start.