I googled a bit of information on Yoko Ogawa when I started writing this review, and I was impressed but not too surprised to learn that she has won every major Japanese literary award and has published over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction. Revenge undoubtedly showcases the skills of a talented, experienced author. When I read “Afternoon at the Bakery”, the first of the “Eleven Dark Tales” in this collection, I was stunned. It’s a devastating kind of story, like many of the stories here – very calm and quiet, with sudden stabs of shock and pain, like a surgical knife slid quickly but gently into the heart of an unsuspecting victim. A simple narrative draws you in – one sunny afternoon, a woman walks to the bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. For some reason, the shop is empty – there are no customers, and no one behind the counter. The woman is not in a rush, so she sits down to wait for the pastry chef. Soon, another woman comes in, and they make small talk. “How old is [your son]?” the second woman asks. The first woman replies with this:
Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.
She tells us about her son’s death twelve years ago, and how she kept the strawberry shortcake they were meant to share one his birthday and watched it rot. When her husband told her to throw it out, she react violently:
I threw it in his face. Mold and crumbs covered his hair and his cheeks, and a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death.
I fell in love with Ogawa’s writing in this story. I know it’s translated, but it’s still superb – elegant and hypnotic, with details that tease your senses (I’m thinking of the mention of vanilla, strawberries, cream and the warmth of birthday-candle flames) or cut right into your heart and lungs. It’s the kind of thing that makes you pause to consider or savour what you’ve just read.
“Afternoon at the Bakery” remained my favourite Revenge story (I think I got attached, since it was the first), but with such a wonderful writing style, the others certainly did not disappoint. Ogawa’s great talent, it seems, lies in her absolutely exquisite details and the skilful ways in which she uses them. Most of the stories have rather odd plots. In “Old Mrs J”, the creepy old landlady of an apartment complex finds hand-shaped carrots growing in her vegetable garden. In “Sewing for the Heart” a woman asks a specialist bag maker to sew a bag for her heart, which is particularly delicate because it beats outside of her body. In “Welcome to the Museum of Torture”, a young woman takes a walk after her boyfriend leaves her, and ends up going on a tour through a museum of torture, imagining how she might use some of the devices on her boyfriend.
Besides the plots, there are many beautiful, quaint, tragic or bizarre details within the stories. In “Fruit Juice”, the narrator describes the way that the events of the story he just related “sank into a hole at the bottom of my sea of memories” giving the reader a vague sense that he’s lost something important but inexplicable. Another character describes a woman’s voice as having “an impressive coldness to it – I could almost imagine its tone freezing my ear drum”.
But the most impressive details are the ones that can’t really be quoted and are difficult to write about because they are scattered within and across stories, linking characters and tales, reminding us of sinister things, exposing eerie truths, or revealing the conclusions to earlier stories that ended ambiguously. The strawberry shortcake and the bakery from the first story are mentioned in a later narrative, and the reminder gives an ominous feel to the current tale. We learn about a character’s murder in one story, and when people are looking for him or mention him in later stories we recall why he was killed and the gruesome way in which he died. There are many elements of horror, entwined with the drama unfolding between the characters.
With these tiny but memorable details, Ogawa delicately links lives and stories, creating an unusual kind of novel composed of separate tales. It’s an interesting form; my only problem with it is that one or two of the stories are a bit dull, and seem to be there largely to provide links for others. But for the most part it works beautifully. Although most of the characters never meet each other, the events and artefacts of their lives join them and form a coherent whole for the reader. There is also one notable recurring character – an obscure writer – who appears in several of the stories. We learn that she has actually written some of them, although whether we read her versions or the real-life events on which they are based is unclear. The book is enjoyably vague in that way – it’s not the kind of novel that offers answers or meaning or easy conclusions; instead it taunts and delights you with its intricacies. Ogawa has said that “one of the fundamental values of fiction is its power to express the inexplicable and the absurd” (Q&A with Yoko Ogawa) and I think that’s exactly what she does with Revenge.
Another notable thing is that almost all the characters are unnamed (a trademark of Ogawa’s according to the Q&A just referenced). The only characters with anything akin to names are Mrs J and Dr Y, and both are secondary characters. Every story is intimately narrated in the first person, and it can sometimes be unclear how old the “I” is or whether they are male or female. The location is completely anonymous too – there are no place names, no landmarks; the novel could be set in any well-developed country. The only suggestion that it might take place in Japan, where Ogawa lives, is that characters sometimes bow to each other in greeting or thanks.
Unencumbered by these specifics, the novel seems almost ghostly, and reading it can be a rather strange and hypnotic experience. But I like it a lot. It’s so well done, that names and places aren’t necessary. It’s a pensive rather than exciting read, but it’s the kind of book that can teach you to appreciate the qualities of good writing, particularly the way writers can manipulate certain elements of a story in order to leave an impression on the reader. Most authors can only dream of writing something this evocative, or writing a sentence or crafting an image that etches itself into the read. Yoko Ogawa is one of the few who can, and I’m glad to have found her.
Now, I my thoughts on Revenge have convinced you that it’s worth reading because I’m giving away two copies on Violin in a Void. One has been generously provided by Gabrielle Gantz at Picador, for residents of the USA and Canada. And since I don’t want everyone else to miss out on a chance to get a copy, I am providing one as well, via Book Depository. Here are the details:
- To enter, follow me via email (sign-up on the homepage), WordPress or Twitter (@Violin_InA_Void) and leave a comment on this post. Be sure to mention whether you’re from the USA/Canada or the rest of the world.
- The USA/Canada copy will be sent to the USA/Canada winner by Picador.
- I will be sending a copy to the second winner via Book Depository, so you are only eligible if they ship to your country.
- This giveaway will last for two weeks and ends at midnight (GMT+3) on 12 February.
- I will choose the winners using random.org, and contact them on 13 February for their addresses. Both winners will be announced in a blog post shortly thereafter.
Thanks so much to Picador for sponsoring a giveaway, and good luck to all those who enter!