Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Yoko Ogawa: Revenge

The digital and physical covers for Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge are unfortunate. The Kindle edition opted for prettified exoticism: the brush script title is imposed on vaguely "Oriental" embroidery. This is not a book about seamstresses or calligraphers. Revenge is set in modern Japan, in cheap apartments, small farms, on highways and in private homes. The paperback edition received only slightly better treatment: the word "Revenge" appears slashed into distressed canvas. There are hints of blood. The suggestion is that you are about to open a bag of bodies. This is as misleading as the needlework: There are murders, accidents, and infidelities in the collection but their true darkness is of a more amorphous nature. Ogawa’s horror is the kind that comes upon you after too many hours spent alone, when your own mind expands to fill the shadows.

Because she is Japanese, Ogawa is often compared to Murakami. Their work has some superficial similarities. They are both writers who deal in mysticism and in isolation. But the differences are distinct. She is Cortázar to his Borges. Her writing is spare, lovely and strange, half plot and half hallucination. Like all the best magical realists, she has a tiger of her own.1

A morsel of text will tell you more than all my adjectives: "The fur shimmered in the white snow as I bent to pick up the scattered bits of tiger. … ."

In an age when publishers vigourously mold short story collections into novels, Revenge only purports to be eleven separate tales. Yet, a knotted rope of causality binds the book. Characters appear and disappear. Fruit spilled in one tale rolls into the next. But these protagonists exist largely in their own heads. It is perhaps their loneliness that prevents the book from becoming a novel. Without shared experience no unified version of the truth can ever be created. The truth shifts and resists definition with each change of perspective.

It might be expected that in a collection called Revenge, the reader would know who was the avenger and who the target. But this, like so much else, remains ambiguous. It appears that one character may have written one or more of the stories in the collection. Whether she imagined them or whether she experienced the events is unknown. She is known variously as "I,” "Mama,” "that Woman,” and the "writer.” She becomes in a sense, an authorial alter ego. In another work, that might give her power, but here she is small and somewhat mad, burned by the weight of a book she is writing. In the end, its pages turn out to be blank. Revenge turns on her, flaunting her weakness to the reader. Somehow, these creamy sheets are blacker than all the bodies and machines of torture that Ogawa devises.

Yoko Ogawa
Picador, 2013

1If you don’t know what I’m talking about, run to your nearest bookstore or library and check out Cortázar’s Bestiary. You can thank me later. Back ^