untitled (6)

I’m starting my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize reading this year in Japan. With no particular preference (apart from A Man in Love, there was nothing on the list that I had been intending to eventually get round to), I’ve taken the pragmatic decision to begin with the shorter texts so I can delude myself that I am making swift progress. Yoko Ogawa has been long-listed for the prize before, with The Housekeeper and the Professor in 2010. I read that novel at the time and was neither offended nor entranced by it. Two other novels, Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool are also available in English, all translated by Stephen Snyder.

The first question is whether Revenge is a novel or a series of linked short stories. The connection between the first two stories may seem tenuous at first – the opening story is set in a bakery, the second concerns a girl who later goes on to work in a bakery – but that this is more than coincidence is clear when we discover that the kiwis stored in the post office in that story have been placed there by ‘Old Mrs J’ from the third…chapter?

As we progress the connections become stronger and coalesce around a small number of characters, in particular the writer-narrator of ‘Old Mrs J’, who is the novel-writing step-mother of ‘The Little Dustman’, taking her adopted son to the zoo in a snow storm. After her funeral the narrator discovers a photograph of her holding a carrot shaped like a hand that was taken in the previous story. She reappears in ‘Tomatoes and the Full Moon’, and mentions the snow storm as having taken place thirty years earlier. The narrator of that story discovers one of her books in the hotel library – its title is identical to this collection’s first tale – ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’. In the final story, an elderly woman is read ‘Old Mrs J’ by her protégé; it seems likely she, too, is the writer.

A second strand revolves around murder. A doctor is killed in ‘Lab Coats’ by his lover because he won’t leave his wife. The same doctor is being paged at the beginning of the next story ‘Sewing for the Heart’, narrated by another characters with murderous thoughts. That story ends with intent:

“The shears in my right pocket prick my thigh as I walk.”

That the intention is fulfilled is made clear in the following story, ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’:

“The attacker used a pair of scissors, stabbed her in the heart.”

For all these connections (and there are others, one involving a Bengal tiger), the ‘chapters’ are shaped like stories, often with skilful endings, from the classic twist of ‘Lab Coats’:

“I shake it and out falls a tongue.”

To the more baleful, ambiguous conclusion to ‘Tomatoes and the Full Moon’ where we discover that the writer has left her precious manuscript behind:

“Inside was a ream of blank paper.”

The connections certainly add to the reader’s enjoyment and do trace the development of two of the characters in an interesting way. At other times they can seem gimmicky: ‘Lab Coats’ would make a great addition to any anthology, but its echoes in two other stories add little. Similarly, the discovery at the end of the final story links it to the first, but I’m not convinced this enhances either tale. Death is commonplace, occurring, I think, in every story, with two funerals and three murders. In this sense it might be said to be a gloomy book, but Ogawa’s touch is light, and I felt as if I were skating across a glistening surface beneath which lay a vast darkness. Similarly, even characters we see from different angles, we see superficially, their deeper feelings unknown even to themselves.

Though I’ve still a long way to go, I would be surprised if Revenge made the shortlist. Ultimately, it falls between two genres: as a collection of stories it lacks range; as a novel it seems slight.

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