Genre: Adult Dark Short Stories
Release date: January 29 2013
Source: Finished copy from publisher
In a word: Disturbing, unexpected, shocking and heartbreaking.
This is the second remarkable short story collection I’ve read this year, and I’m thrilled to review Revenge by the very talented Yoko Ogawa. This book deserves every accolade it has received and then some. I came away from these stories with an uneasy feeling that lingered long after I read the final page. Like a box of chocolates that are sweet on the outside and bitter on the inside, Ogawa’s stories left me feeling uncomfortable, but grateful to have tasted them.
Each story begins benignly, in almost unremarkable prose. A woman goes into a bakery to buy a cake for her son’s birthday. Two girls work in the laundry at a hospital washing lab coats. A man on the way to his step-mother’s funeral is waylaid when his train gets stuck in the snow. Each premise seems ordinary, but as the stories progress they become more and more horrifying. Most of Ogawa’s characters are unhappy and lonely, mourning dead children and relatives, or thrown into situations with strangers. They seem like normal people who you might pass on the sidewalk or nod to in line at the grocery store. At first. But slowly these characters begin to reveal their unexpected secrets, and the stories don’t feel so ordinary anymore. The author has a talent for luring us into a seemingly cozy place, and then with little or no warning, pulling the rug out from under us.
The further into the stories you go, you begin to notice that each one is tenuously connected to another. A character from one pops up in the next, and little by little you realize that Ogawa is painting a picture of a group of people who live in the same city and interact on a very basic level, sometimes only as strangers. It is only upon going back and rereading the stories that you can see these odd connections. I especially love the way the first and last story are tied together this way, as a mother whose son has died in the first story, observes an old woman watching her, an old woman who is the main character in the last story. It’s another way to catch the reader off-guard and it works brilliantly. Although I often skip around when reading collections, I recommend reading these stories in order.
Another disconcerting element of Ogawa’s writing is the sexual ambiguity of the narrators. For example, in Sewing for the Heart I assumed the narrator was female, since the story is about a purse designer. But as the tale unfolded, certain details made me realize that in fact, the protagonist was male. Just because Ogawa is female does not mean all her narrators are too, and I found myself confused more than once. It is only when a reference to a “boyfriend” or a “girlfriend” comes along that the gender becomes clear. (And not even then, really. The character could be gay, after all.) Assuming anything while reading Revenge is probably not a good idea.
Most of the stories are realistic and believable, even though they might contain shocking elements. But a few are downright fantastical. In one of my favorites, Sewing for the Heart, the aforementioned purse-maker is asked to make a very special bag for woman whose heart resides outside her chest. In two of the stories, The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger and Welcome to the Museum of Torture, a tiger makes an appearance (the same Bengal tiger!); and in Lab Coats, a pair of laundresses work in the basement of a hospital, cleaning the doctors’ lab coats. As one girl empties the pockets of a coat, she makes a gruesome discovery that leads to a murder confession. The most poignant of the bunch is Afternoon at the Bakery, an achingly sad tale of a mother’s loss that turns darker and darker as the story progresses.
Ogawa’s stories are not for everyone. They will leave you feeling unsettled, but if you’re like me, after reading Revenge you’ll want to read everything Yoko Ogawa has written.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. You can purchase Revenge here.
This review counts towards my participation in Book’d Out’s 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge, in the category of Translated Fiction.