As usual with my 20 Books of Summer challenge, the reading isn’t the problem, it’s the reviewing. I’m actually nearly finished my 7th book, but am only at review number 3. I’ll be playing review catch up for the next while, but at least I’m on course to actually read all my books, for a change!
I’ve been a fan of Yoko Ogawa’s exquisite controlled prose since reading Revenge, The Housekeeper and the Professor and Hotel Iris. The Diving Pool, written when she was in her twenties, is a collection of three novellas, all intuitively exploring emotionally displaced female psychologies.
As with all Ogawa’s work, the stories are written in a simple prose style that belies a profound emotional depth. A sense of unease permeates all these stories, which have an eerie dream-like quality despite their realistic settings. A lingering feeling of dread follows each of these tales, as if the reader awakens from a nightmare and is unable to shake the unease that comes in its wake.
The first two novellas in this mesmerising collection feature isolated female characters who are at an emotional distance from those around them, and try to poison people in a warped attempt at intimacy.
In The Diving Pool, Aya lives in the ‘Lighthouse’ an orphanage run by her parents.
My father and mother are the leaders of a church, a place they say mediates between the faithful and their god. They also run the Lighthouse, which is an orphanage where I am the only child who is not an orphan, a fact that has disfigured my family.
Aya has developed obsessive feelings for an orphan Jun, with whom she has lived since childhood and every day she watches him in secret at his diving practice. Unable to express her feelings for Jun, she internalises her need for comfort and connection and gives in to cruelty instead. She begins to torment a small child called Rie in the orphanage, finding excitement and power in her ability to hurt.
My desires seemed simple and terribly complicated at the same time: to gaze at Jun’s wet body and to make Rie cry. These were the only things that gave me comfort.
When Rie becomes dangerously ill and Aya still feels no remorse, Ogawa cleverly subverts our expectations and shows us how cruelty and kindness can be intermingled when our natural feelings have become twisted through childhood neglect.
The award winning Pregnancy Diary features another emotionally detached young woman. The diary of the title is not that of her own pregnancy, but of her sister’s. As each detail of the pregnancy is logged in the diary, a sense growing revulsion creeps into the narrative as the focus is not on the baby, but on bodily changes and on the consumption of food.
I feel a little disorientated every time I see her like this. Her while body is swelling before my eyes like a giant tumour.
As her sister suffers first from extreme morning sickness, then from a need to eat constantly, the narrator makes vat after vat of possibly toxic grapefruit jam to feed to her insatiable sister.
Like Aya in The Diving Pool, the narrator of Pregnancy Diary is essentially impassive, seeking power through cruelty with an almost disconcerting lack of awareness. Their roles in life are indistinct and their response to this is to create a position of power where they can. Ogawa’s characters seem unaware of the consequences of their actions and the cool, detached tone adds to a sense of alienation not only from those around them, but from themselves.
The protagonist of the final story Dormitory channels her sense of isolation towards misplaced kindness rather than misplaced cruelty. While she waits for her husband to summon her to live with him in Sweden where he is working, the narrator fills her day with patchwork quilting and television, unable to focus on anything more substantial.
My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season….I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.
Into this limbo comes her cousin, who is moving to Tokyo to go to University. He asks her to help him find accommodation and she finds him a place in her old college dormitory, run by a man who is missing both arms and a leg. Of all the stories in this collection, Dormitory is the one that most resembles the horror/ thriller genre. A student from the dormitory has gone missing in strange circumstances and as the narrator attempts to visit her cousin after he has moved in, she becomes a carer for the deformed manager. As she is drawn into his isolated world, she loses her grip on everyday life, ignoring her husband’s letters and feeling incapable of completing the simplest of tasks
Somehow I couldn’t really understand what he was trying to say. The words – ‘market’…’passport’, ‘moving company’ – were like obscure philosophical terms.
Where has her cousin gone? What is the steady humming sound in the dormitory and where is the growing stain in the ceiling coming from? Ogawa once again subverts expectation and the story ends on a symbolic rather than a sinister note.
As with all Ogawa’s books, there is not a word wasted, yet her prose evokes a dream-like, even surreal pull, distancing the reader before bringing them close again. There is a sense of beautiful unease in her stories that haunt long after they have been read. The cool brilliance of her narratives suggests a universality to her work and the translation by Stephen Snyder maintains this smooth, eerie magic.
This is one of my Diverse reads for #ReadDiverse2016
Read on: Book
20 Books of Summer: 3/20
Number Read: 121
Number Remaining: 625