Hotel Iris – Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

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I was about to lock up the cash register and turn out the lights in the lobby, when I heard something heavy hitting the floor above, followed by a woman’s scream. It was a very long scream – so long that I started to wonder before it ended whether she wasn’t laughing instead.

“Filthy pervert!” The scream stopped at last, and a woman came flying out of Room 202. “You disgusting old man!” She caught her foot on a seam in the carpet and fell on the landing, but she went on hurling insults at the door of the room. “What do you think I am? You’re not fit to be with a woman like me! Scumbag! Impotent bastard!”

Hotel Iris opens with this woman – a prostitute – leaving the hotel following a tryst with a man. Our narrator is 17-year-old, Mari, who’s working on the reception of her mother’s hotel, the Hotel Iris. Ogawa sets the tone of the novel with this scene – it is to be sexual and disturbing. Mari’s reaction to the scene alerts us to the fact her view may be different to those around her and indeed, the reader’s:

“Shut up, whore.” The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel. It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger. Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn…It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order. It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word “whore” was somehow appealing.

The man is past middle age, wearing a dark brown suit and white shirt. He remains calm and unembarrassed throughout the episode.

A fortnight later, Mari sees the man again. This time he is buying toothpaste at a shop in the town centre and she decides to follow him. Eventually he confronts her and she discovers that he lives on the island just off the coast of the town. He tells her he’s a translator of Russian.

Mari has a tempestuous relationship with her mother:

If Mother is so intent on paying me compliments, it might be because she doesn’t really love me very much. In fact, the more she tells me how pretty I am, the uglier I feel. To be honest, I have never once thought of myself as pretty.

She still does my hair every morning. She sits me down at the dressing table and takes hold of my ponytail, forcing me to keep very still. When she starts in with the brush, I can barely stand it, but if I move my head even the least bit, she tightens her grip.

When the translator writes to Mari and asks her to meet him – which she does – and they begin a relationship, it makes sense that she is turned on by him commanding her, causing her pain while forcing her to act out sexual scenarios and being verbally abuse towards her.

There are some incredibly disturbing scenes in Hotel Iris, ones that made me wish I could rescue Mari. It seems to me that Ogawa uses her as an example of young women who are expected to care about their looks, dress a certain way, act out scenes they’ve seen on pornographic films to satisfy men’s desires. However, Ogawa refuses to make Mari the victim – she comments numerous times on how much she likes to be told/hurt/abused by this man – and leaves the reader to question whether her behaviour is her own choice.

Hotel Iris is a challenging read – it’s definitely the darkest of Ogawa’s work I’ve read. I’d be interested to know what others think of it.


Thanks to Vintage for the review copy.

Unsung Female Writers (Part Three)

When I ran the Unsung Female Writers’ lists parts one and two, JacquiWine contacted me and suggested I ask some male bloggers to share their suggestions. What a fantastic idea, I thought, so I contacted two of my favourite male bloggers, both of whom are great champions of women writers.

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Eric from lonesomereader and David from Follow the Thread to share the women writers they think we should be reading.

David reads and reviews mostly fiction and although he’s happy to read any book as long as it’s good, he particularly enjoys reading speculative fiction. This year he’s aiming for two-thirds of his reading to be either literature in translation or English language works from outside the UK or the USA. He also reviews for a number of publications and is the current guest editor for Fiction Uncovered.

Nina Allan

(Photograph from

Nina Allan’s work sits on the boundary between literary and speculative fiction, skilfully combining both with a strong sense of the southern English landscapes in which her stories are often set. Most of her work to date has been short fiction, including the collections The Silver Wind, a fragmented portrait of loss depicting multiple versions of the same characters; and Stardust, which chases the dream of a film actress through past, present and future. But perhaps the best place to start is The Race, Allan’s recently published debut novel, which begins as a tale of the racing of genetically enhanced greyhounds, and turns into an examination of individuals having to re-evaluate their place in the world.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006)

Octavia Butler was one of the most significant African-American writers of science fiction, whose work explored issues of race, gender, and power struggle, amongst others. Her books ranged from Kindred, the tale of a contemporary African-American woman sent back to the early 19th century; to the “Lilith’s Brood” trilogy, in which the remnants of humanity are rescued by an alien species able to manipulate genetics. From the work of Butler’s that I’ve read, I would suggest starting with Parable of the Sower, whose protagonist founds her own humanist religion in a near future afflicted by environmental damage. It was the first in a series which was left unfinished after two volumes by Butler’s sudden death at the age of 58.


Liz Jensen

Liz Jensen is a difficult writer to pin down, as she never quite does the same thing twice (which is always a good thing as far as I’m concerned!). She has written a mystery from the viewpoint of a boy in a coma (The Ninth Life of Louis Drax); painted a satirical portrait of contemporary Britain seen through the eyes of a 19th-century time traveller (My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time); and told an unsentimental tale of life on the Home Front (War Crimes for the Home). If you’ve never read Jensen before, try The Rapture, a sharp study of a paralysed psychotherapist trying to prove her worth whilst treating a girl who is apparently able to predict catastrophe.


Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa is a highly prolific author in her native Japan, but only four of her books have appeared in English to date (all ably translated by Stephen Snyder). These tend towards the dark and macabre, as demonstrated her collection of linked stories, Revenge (shortlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), or Hotel Iris, her novel about a teenage girl’s relationship with an older man. But Ogawa’s work also has a lighter side, which can be seen in The Housekeeper and the Professor, the charming tale of a woman who goes to work for a mathematician with short-term memory problems. Any of Ogawa’s books would make a good entry-point, but the three novellas in The Diving Pool stand as a fine showcase of her range.


Caroline Smailes

Nothing that Caroline Smailes writes is straightforward; she uses form and structure to transform her subjects. For example, Black Boxes explored the closed emotional worlds of a mother and daughter through their own private ‘black boxes’ – the mother’s conversations with herself about her memories, and the daughter’s diary. 99 Reasons Why was an ebook-only novella with multiple endings, which could be selected at random through your ereader. You might like to begin with Smailes’s most recent novel, The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, which transplants water sprites to a municipal swimming pool in the north of England, but with a real sense of menace and magic.

Eric has had a ‘passion for turning the page’ since he was six. He has a Masters in Studies in Fiction from UEA and writes his own stories too. His novel Enough won the Pearl Street Publishing First Book Award.

Amanda Craig

Writer and journalist Amanda Craig is certainly worthy of more attention and praise. She has produced several excellent books including novels that take you on a girl’s journey in Tuscany, re-imagine a Shakespeare play, uncover the secrets of a British boarding school, survey the changing immigrant population of London and examine the vicious world of journalism. I would recommend starting with her extremely moving novel IN A DARK WOOD about mental illness and the hidden meaning of fairy tales.


Angela Carter

Normally I would grudgingly respect judges’ decisions in literary prizes, but the snubbing of Carter on the 1991 Booker shortlist was criminal. She was one of the most innovative English writers of the 20th century and dying from cancer at the time her final novel WISE CHILDREN was released. As with all of this stunning writer’s work, it is a brilliantly inventive book and should have been acknowledged.


Rachel Ingalls

Who is Rachel Ingalls? A private and elusive writer who has produced only several slim volumes of writing since the 1960s. Her writing delves into the fantastic where hard reality buffets up against the surreal. Read MRS CALIBAN about a housewife’s love affair with an aquatic being who has a taste for avocados. It’s an inspired, complex, subversive masterwork.


Joyce Carol Oates

It’s too easy to gape at Oates’ staggering productivity and dismiss her as a writing machine. Yes, there are over 60 novels, over 35 story collections, more than a dozen non-fiction books – plus poetry, plays, anthologies, young adult novels and more every year. Do not despair! This is a dedicated artist whose writing always surprises and engages you. Begin with her novel THE GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER and carry on exploring this complex, intelligent writer whose writing you’ll always want to come back to.


Jean Rhys

In the 1930s Rhys published a string of intense and beautifully melancholy short novels, but then faded into relative obscurity for 25 or so years. When she successfully returned to the public eye with WIDE SARGASSO SEA many people were surprised she was still alive as they had assumed she committed suicide given the depressing tone of her previous novels. Of course, any fan of JANE EYRE must read Rhys’ novel WIDE SARGASSO SEA, but her early novels deserve exploration – particularly GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT whose devastating ending provides the perfect counterpoint to Joyce’s ULYSSES.


Huge thanks to both David and Eric. Some brilliant choices, as ever some I’ve read, some I’ve heard of and some I’ll be looking up now. Hope you’ve found someone who looks interesting to you too.

The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

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We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.

A young housekeeper is sent by her agency to work for a man she calls the Professor. He’s already had nine previous housekeepers, the reasons for this seem to become clear at the housekeeper’s interview. Firstly, she is interviewed by the professor’s sister-in-law who sets out her requirements including one that states the housekeeper must never bother her – she lives in the main house, while her brother lives in a cottage at the bottom of the garden. Secondly, the Professor’s memory stopped working in 1975, when he hit his head in a car accident.

“In the simplest terms, it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes – no more and no less.”

Every morning when the housekeeper arrives at the Professor’s door, he asks her ‘shoe size or telephone number, or perhaps my zip code’ and then discusses it in relation to factorials or prime numbers, number theory having been his area of expertise when he was an academic.

Ideas about numbers seem to come to him effortlessly while he has devised a somewhat scattered way of attempting to remember other things that are important to him:

But by far the most curious thing about the Professor’s appearance was the fact that his suit was covered with innumerable scraps of notepaper, each one attached to him by a tiny binder clip. Every conceivable surface – the collar, cuffs, pockets, hems, belt loops, and buttonholes – was covered with notes, and the binder clips gathered the fabric of his clothing in awkward bunches. The notes were simply scraps of torn paper, some yellowing or crumbling.

The job seems to go okay initially as long as the housekeeper doesn’t interrupt the Professor when he’s thinking; he spends most of his time working on mathematical puzzles and proofs in magazines which he asks her to post when he’s satisfied he’s completed them. As she spends more time with him, he begins to ask her to think about the numbers that surround her and she starts to become more interested in mathematics and number puzzles and theories. All is well until the Professor discovers the housekeeper has a ten-year-old son:

“And where is your son now?” he said.
“Well, let’s see. He’s home from school by now, but he’s probably given up on his homework and gone to the park to play baseball with his friends.”
“ ‘Well, let’s see’! How can you be so nonchalant? It’ll be dark soon!”
I was wrong, there would be no revelations about the number 10, it seemed. In this case, 10 was the age of a small boy, and nothing more.
“It’s all right,’ I said. “He does this every day.”
“Every day! You abandon your son every day so you can come here to make hamburgers?”

The outcome of the conversation is that the Professor insists the housekeeper’s son must come to his cottage every day after school, he adds a note to this effect to the one about the housekeeper pinned to his jacket. Once the son comes to the cottage, the Professor realises that it would be ludicrous for the housekeeper to feed him and then go home and cook for herself and the son he’s nicknamed Root. This leads to them eating as a makeshift family unit and the Professor and Root forming a close bond.

Of course, it doesn’t go that smoothly but I’m not going to spoil the rest of the story by telling you what happens next!

The Housekeeper and the Professor has a different tone to other books of Ogawa’s that have been translated into English. If you know her other work it’s dark, often very dark, but this is – dare I say it – heart-warming. Now if you’d told me that before I read it, I wouldn’t have bothered but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The relationship between Root and the Professor is lovely and the mathematics – for someone who knows little beyond the basics – is really quite interesting. The one thing I would have liked was for the story of the Professor and his sister-in-law to be explored further. There were hints that something more complex was at play there but little was revealed.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend The Housekeeper and the Professor, especially if the thought of Ogawa’s darker books makes you shudder!


Thanks to Vintage for the review copy.

Yoko Ogawa Bundle Giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

Earlier this year, I read my first book by the female giant of Japanese literature, Yoko Ogawa. The book was The Diving Pool, a collection of three dark novellas. Ogawa was then shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her short story collection, Revenge, which Jacqui guest reviewed.


To celebrate the publication of Revenge in paperback on July 3rd, Vintage books are reissuing Ogawa’s other works so far translated into English, with stunning new covers. And I have a full set – Revenge, The Diving Pool, Hotel Iris and The Housekeeper and the Professor – to give away.

Entry is simple: leave a comment below by 12pm U.K. time on Sunday 6th July. The winner will be chosen at random and notified as soon as possible after the closing time. I am accepting world wide entries.

Edit: As always, I’m using a random number generator to choose the prize winner. Entrants have been allocated a number in order of entry as follows:

1 – Ann Bradley
2 – talesfromabruceeyeview
3 – June Seghni
4 – mushypeasonearth
5 – Janet Emson
6 – Caroline Clarke
7 – My Book Strings
8 – Martha
9 – Erdeaka
10 – Rebecca Foster
11 – Elena
12 – Bookbii
13 – the abhishekkr
14 – Kevin Freeburn
15 – Vicki Jarrett
16 – Paola Ruocco
17 – Alluglyboysdo
18 – Samstillreading
19 – Laura Hartley
20 – Ruth F Hunt

And the winner is…

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Congratulations to Erdeaka, an email is on its way to you. Thanks to everyone else for entering; there was such enthusiasm about Ogawa, I wish I had more copies to give away.

Thanks to Vintage for the prize.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

Yesterday, while I was still overexcited about the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist was announced. Those of us who champion women’s fiction have every reason to be thrilled with the shortlist as there’s a 50/50 gender split from a longlist that was 33/66 in favour of books written by men. Part of that is to do with the low numbers of books by women that are translated into English which makes it even more encouraging that the judges think those which do make the transition are some of the best pieces of translated literature available.

Brilliant guest blogger Jacqui has already reviewed two of the three shortlisted novels by women and her final review for The Mussel Feast will be up tomorrow. If you click on the titles below, you can read her other reviews.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Shortlist:

Hiromi Kawakami Strange Weather in Tokyo (Japanese; trans. Allison Markin Powell) Portobello Books (And my review.)

Yoko Ogawa Revenge (Japanese; trans. Stephen Snyder) Harvill Secker

Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast (German; trans. Jamie Bulloch) Peirene Press

Hassan Blasim The Iraqi Christ (Arabic; trans. Jonathan Wright) Comma Press

Karl Ove Knausgaard A Man in Love (Norwegian; trans. Don Bartlett) Harvill Secker

Hubert Mingarelli A Meal in Winter (French; trans. Sam Taylor) Portobello Books

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa – Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Today it’s Jacqui’s second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize review. I have to say I’m very keen to read this now.

When the independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist was announced in early March, I was thrilled to see Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge among the contenders. Ogawa is one of two female writers from Japan to make the cut this year; the other is Hiromi Kawakami for her novel Strange Weather in Tokyo which both Naomi and I have already reviewed for January in Japan, an annual focus on Japanese literature hosted by blogger (and fellow IFFP shadow-judge) Tony Malone (My review; Naomi’s review.)

Revenge is a stunning yet unsettling collection of eleven interlinked short stories; while each individual tale works as a short story in its own right, they are elegantly connected by a set of recurring images and signifiers threaded through the stories. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective has changed. It’s all very cleverly constructed and part of the satisfaction in reading Revenge comes from spotting the connections between characters, scenes and narrative fragments throughout the collection.

To give you an example, the collection opens with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ in which a woman visits a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. At first the bakery appears to be empty, but then the woman notices the patissier standing in the kitchen sobbing gently while talking to someone on the telephone. This story ends before we learn more about the patissier but she reappears in the next tale (‘Fruit Juice’) where we discover the source of her sadness.  And strawberry shortcakes crop up again in a later story (‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’) when another girl buys cakes (from the same bakery, as it happens) for a dinner with her boyfriend.

The stories in Revenge explore some pretty dark themes, and in this respect there’s a clear connection to Ogawa’s earlier collection The Diving Pool, which Naomi and I both read earlier this year. In Revenge we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way. Many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness:

She was an inconspicuous girl, perhaps the quietest in our grade. She almost never spoke in class, and when asked to stand up and translate a passage from English, or to solve a math problem on the board, she did it as discreetly as possible, without fuss. She had no friends to speak of, belonged to no clubs, and she ate her lunch in a corner by herself. (pg 15)

Ogawa often describes characters in a way that suggests a certain fragile quality to their persona. They seem delicate, yet easily shattered or damaged:

The woman fell silent again and sat as still as a doll. In fact, everything about her was doll-like: her tiny figure, her porcelain skin, her bobbed hair. Her wrists and fingers and ankles were so delicate they seemed as though they would break if you touched them. (pg 132)

Desertion or rejection is another theme. In some stories Ogawa uses a forgotten building (like the abandoned Post Office we visit in ‘Fruit Juice’) to illustrate this feature; in others the characters themselves are the rejected ones:

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique. (pg 124)

This all leads to some very disturbing behaviour indeed. Some of the stories explore the dark, sinister side of desire and how rejection or jealousy can precipitate acts of revenge.  There are some chilling scenes in this book, and one or two of them appear almost out of nowhere which makes them all the more disquieting…

And there are some very macabre images, too. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Torture and in another story, ‘Old Mrs. J’ (one of my favourites from the collection), Mrs. J unearths from her garden a carrot in the shape of a hand:

It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed: five fingers, with a thick thumb and long finger in the middle. The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist. (pg 31)

Ogawa uses some of these images to explore the theme of decay and death. We see dilapidated buildings which have faded over the years; tomatoes squashed and splattered on a road following an accident involving a lorry; and a strawberry shortcake is left to rot and harden, growing mould in the process:

‘It was like breathing in death’ (pg. 6)

And I wonder if some of the motifs running through these stories are coded references to bodily secretions. After all, as a character in ‘Lab Coats’ remarks ‘It’s amazing all the stuff that can ooze out of a body’(pg. 56)

Revenge is an excellent collection of short stories, each one adding new layers and connections to the overall narrative. On the surface Ogawa’s prose is clean and precise, beautifully captured by Stephen Snyder’s crystalline translation. And yet there’s an unsettling chill rippling through her work, an undercurrent of darkness if you like, which I find strangely alluring. Some of her stories have the feel of modern-day fairy tales, almost ethereal in their tone. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche and how chilling acts of darkness can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. In this respect, her work reminds me a little of some of David Lynch’s films, especially Blue Velvet which opens with its lead character making a gruesome discovery in a field. And others, including Natalie Haynes one of the judges for this year’s IFFP, have likened Revenge to some of Angela Carter’s stories. High praise indeed.

So, what about its chances as a contender for the IFFP? Well, this is one of my personal favourites thus far, I must admit. Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award going and Revenge – her fourth book to be translated into English – has a great chance of making the IFFP shortlist.

Revenge is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.
Source: personal copy.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

Last week, when I was getting all excited about the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist, another corner of my bookish internet was animatedly discussing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.

‘The Prize honours the best work of fiction by a living author, which has been translated into English from any other language and published in the United Kingdom. Uniquely, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize gives the winning author and translator equal status: each receives £5,000.’

Following a number of bloggers who specialise in writing about translated fiction has led me to become more interested in it and I’d already committed myself to reading more books in translation this year than I have previously. Unfortunately, fewer books written by women are translated into English; a huge shame considering those books that do make it through are usually very good indeed.

What it was good to see when the longlist was announced was the inclusion of five female writers. Although that’s only a third of the total, it’s an increase on 2013 and 2012 when there were two. I’ve already read and reviewed two of them – Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir and Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. However, the clash between the timing of the IFFP and the Bailey’s Prize means that I can’t shadow them both; that’s where the bloggers’ shadow jury and in particular Jacqui (@JacquiWine), comes in.

Every year Stu (@stujallen) who blogs at Winston’s Dad, chairs a shadow jury for the IFFP and is joined by a variety of different bloggers. The rest of this year’s panel consists of Tony (@Tony_malone) at Tony’s Reading List, Tony (@messy_tony) at Messengers Booker, Dan (@utterbiblio) at Utterbiblio, David (@David_Heb) at Follow the Thread, Bellezza (@bellezzamjs) at Dolce Bellezza and Jacqui.

Unfortunately (I say that because she’d be superb at it), Jacqui doesn’t have her own blog and so will be guest posting her reviews on other members of the shadow jury’s blogs. Except her reviews of the books by female writers, which I’m delighted to say I’ll be hosting here throughout March and April. Jacqui’s an astute reviewer and reviewed Strange Weather in Tokyo over on Tony’s January in Japan blog earlier this year. I’m looking forward to what she, and the rest of the shadow jury, make of the longlisted books.


Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist (females first):

Julia Franck Back to Back (German; trans. Anthea Bell) Harvill Secker

Hiromi Kawakami Strange Weather in Tokyo (Japanese; trans. Allison Markin Powell) Portobello Books

Yoko Ogawa Revenge (Japanese; trans. Stephen Snyder) Harvill Secker

Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir Butterflies in November (Icelandic; trans. Brian FitzGibbon) Pushkin Press

Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast (German; trans. Jamie Bulloch) Peirene Press

Sinan Antoon The Corpse Washer (Arabic; translated by the author) Yale University Press

Hassan Blasim The Iraqi Christ (Arabic; trans. Jonathan Wright) Comma Press

Sayed Kashua Exposure (Hebrew; trans. Mitch Ginsberg) Chatto & Windus

Karl Ove Knausgaard A Man in Love (Norwegian; trans. Don Bartlett) Harvill Secker

Andrej Longo Ten (Italian; trans. Howard Curtis) Harvill Secker

Ma Jian The Dark Road (Chinese; trans. Flora Drew) Chatto & Windus

Andreï Makine Brief Loves that Live Forever (French; trans. Geoffrey Strachan) MacLehose Press

Javier Marías The Infatuations (Spanish; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) Hamish Hamilton

Hubert Mingarelli A Meal in Winter (French; trans. Sam Taylor) Portobello Books

Jón Kalman Stefánsson The Sorrow of Angels (Icelandic; trans. Philip Roughton) MacLehose Press

The Diving Pool – Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

January in Japan is a blog run by Tony of Tony’s Reading List, highlighting Japanese literature. You can visit it by clicking on the photograph above.

The Diving Pool consists of three novellas, ‘The Diving Pool’, ‘Pregnancy Diary’ and ‘Dormitory’.

In ‘The Diving Pool’, a school girl, Aya, goes to the diving pool, sits high in the stands and watches a boy dive:

Jun is walking out on the ten-meter board. He’s wearing the rust-colored swimsuit I saw yesterday on the drying rack outside the window of his room. When he reaches the end of the board, he turns slowly; then, facing away from the water, he aligns his heels. Every muscle in his body is tensed, as if he were holding his breath. The line of muscle from his ankle to his thigh has the cold elegance of a bronze statue.

Aya’s mother and father are church leaders. They run an orphanage called the Light House; Jun is the oldest child there.

Despite the connotations of safety and protection suggested by the name the Light House, Aya thinks it is ‘the most useless [thing] of all’:

Sometimes I have thought it might be better if I were an orphan, too. If I could have one of the tragic histories so common at the Light House…then I would have been a proper orphan…I wanted only one thing: to be part of a normal, quiet family.

Aya’s desire leads to some very dark behaviour indeed.

The middle novella, ‘Pregnancy Diary’ is narrated by a woman whose sister is pregnant; it follows the pregnancy from six weeks to full term. Although the story appears to be about a pregnancy, it’s also about food. Right from the beginning, the two are linked:

“Then what was the point of taking your temperature every day for two years?
“I can’t stand the thought of some doctor pawing through them right there in front of me, as if he were trying to find out every detail of how I got pregnant.” She studied the yoghurt clinging to her spoon. It shimmered, viscous and white, as it dripped back into the container.

What a lovely image. And there’s more when the sister begins to suffer from morning sickness:

“The noodles are strange, too,” she added. “The way they squish when I bite into them makes me feel like I’m chewing on intestines, little, slippery tubes full of stomach juices.”

When the morning sickness goes, the sister becomes addicted to the narrator’s grapefruit jam with huge consequences. Although ‘Pregnancy Diary’ is subtler than ‘The Diving Pool’, once again this is a dark story with some very dark behaviour.

The final novella, ‘Dormitory’, concerns a student, the cousin of the narrator, who telephones after an absence of fifteen years to ask for help; he wants to live in the dormitory that the narrator lived in when she was a student.

She rings the Manager, who tells her that they’re still open as he has nowhere else to go but things are ‘difficult’ and ‘complicated’:

“The changes mean nothing in themselves. They’re just an outer manifestation, the skull housing the brain, and what I really mean to say is hidden somewhere in the pineal gland, deep in the cerebellum at the heart of the brain.” He spoke cautiously, as if weighing every word…”I can’t tell you any more than that,” he said. ”But in some curious way the dormitory seems to be disintegrating.”

When the narrator and her cousin arrive at the dormitory, we discover that the manager is missing both arms and a leg. And then there’s the student who disappeared one day, his room left as if he’d popped to the shops. Another dark story, probably the darkest of the three, this time with a hint of magical realism.

The Diving Pool is a good collection. The story ‘The Diving Pool’ is probably the most immediate of the three stories; ‘The Dormitory’, the darkest and most perplexing – don’t expect any neat endings here, while ‘Pregnancy Diary’ is a slow burner. I wasn’t sure about it on first reading but day later it’s still niggling away at me, there’s something very dark in the narrator’s behaviour as a feeder.

All three stories, while seeming quite disparate on the surface, share themes of family, food and loss. Ogawa’s writing is crisp with some startling imagery sprinkled as required. I’ll certainly be reading more of her work.