Revenge

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is a collection of interconnected short stories that are about modern Japan but heavily dosed with the twisted and macabre. I have only read one of her previous books, the wonderful The Housekeeper and the Professor which was a rather lovely and warm depiction of family in a slowly fracturing world, but I was aware that her other books were of a much darker and disturbing quality and was reluctant to read them. But I was drawn by the wonderful reception of her new book and the beautiful cover.

Subtitled Eleven Dark Tales, the collection starts with a grieving mother who waits at a bakery to buy a strawberry short cake for her son’s birthday every year even though she lost him six years ago. As she waits for the shop assistant, she is drawn to what looks like the distraught pâtisserie chef speaking on the phone in the kitchen beyond. Not much happens but Ogawa sets the tone of her collection, one that combines an unsettling chill together with a sense of incompleteness. You wonder where she is taking you.

Although not as disturbing as I expected, I did find a number of stories got under my skin and left me feeling uneasy, especially Old Mrs. J (strange), Sewing for the Heart (grotesque) and Tomatoes and the Full Moon (spooky). My favourites were Welcome to the Museum of Torture and the two stories that followed closely which were more poignant and with a hint of fairytale and involves a Museum of Torture, a Bengal Tiger and a man with an interesting past which includes a dose of hoarding (the modern scourge). An intriguing combination.

Initially, I was a little disappointed at the brevity of the stories: the characterisation seemed brash and stifled, the emotions were dealt with in an offhand way. I was unsure about this collection and how it was going to proceed. But slowly, Ogawa begins to tie little sections together, mentioning a character here or an event from a previous story there until it comes full circle. She does this so seamlessly that it takes you a while to realise where you had encountered this snippet of information without taking you away from the story you are currently reading. And when the connections start making sense, you find yourself immersing into this dark, macabre ordinariness in which she so excels. Pretty impressive stuff.

I do recommend that you follow the order of the stories set in the contents as they follow a very loose but definite order and will ultimately make more sense towards the end. You’ll finish with a sense of wonder and a need to re-read the collection.

I would like to thank Harvill Secker for kindly sending me a copy of Revenge to review.

I have heard so much about this book ever since I started blogging and was eager to get my hands on it as it had my favourite combination of fiction with science, in this case mathematics. But as usual, I’m always about a year behind everyone else but someone has to keep the fire burning, right? I haven’t read anything else by Yoko Ogawa and wanted to start with this title because the subject matter seemed a little less extreme.

The Housekeeper and The Professor is a tale of two strangers who form a tenuous bond of friendship and love in what can only be described as difficult circumstances. The Professor who had trained at Cambridge and was once the shining beacon of the mathematical world now lives in a memory loop that lasts only 80 minutes after a devastating car crash. His glittering career in ruin, he is looked after by his sister-in-law who hires a housekeeper for his daily needs. And so the Housekeeper arrives. But something changes when the Professor meets her son, whom he names Root, and soon a bond forms between the three of them cemented by their love of baseball and numbers.

I know there’s a film adaptation in Japanese which I haven’t seen yet, but the book was just how I imagined it to be. Soft, gentle and poignant. It is reminiscent of a slower era, the frantic pace of life slowed right down so that you can focus on the minutiae of daily life. And these particular details themselves are like little droplets of life condensed. The food we eat, the daily rituals, the small celebrations. When it comes down to it, it is these things and the people we do them with that are important.

Although I was looking forward to the scientific bits in the novel, I surprisingly found it to be a little superfluous. I guess for a novel to work, the story needs to move forward without it being too bogged down by theory. Somehow I found myself skipping the mathematical bits to continue with the story. Ogawa is good at showing the importance of mathematics to the Professor who lives solely in his head until he meets the Housekeeper and her son, but the beauty of mathematics somehow surpassed me.

The Housekeeper and The Professor is a short, sweet snapshot of friendship and family that can be found in unexpected places and I enjoyed reading this tale.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5.