These eleven short stories by Yoko Ogawa reveal the morbidity and horror in the everyday. I had never read Ogawa or much Japanese literature; what stood out was the precision and restraint of Ogawa’s writing (or rather, the translation). She does not use gratuitous or even particularly evocative language to build the tension in each of these loosely interconnected stories. And yet, her work seeped into me- maybe all the more effectively because of that.
Each mundane setting; inside a bakery, an apartment, a coat closet, the car; almost seems to be rendered in pastel and from a distance. Narrators; children and mothers, men and women, jilted lovers and obsessed murderers; are less characters than vehicles for the reader to observe the carefully constructed scenes. Strange details; a dried plum in a pocket, a back brace, raw tomatoes on a street, an empty parcel; become more upsetting the longer you sit with them.
The items that Ogowa describes over and over are not haunted in a literally way- not by ghosts. But there is a craftsman obsessed with a masterpiece underappreciated, a woman protective of a book never written, a man fearful of a medical device not worn for decades, and an old woman who can’t seem to get rid of her husband years after he’s died. Ogawa’s characters are affected by something in a way I’m not sure how to describe but haunted.
“Even long after my bedtime, she would still be reading, staring at the notebook without looking up… Mama’s lips would get dry and cracked, and her voice would go hoarse. Eventually she started to slur her words, and her voice quivered so much I worried she was about to cry. I would pray for her to stop; I didn’t like to see Mama suffering like that.”
The author is particularly skilled at using food to vibrantly illustrate the fragility and
destruction of life. The sticky, messy, soft fruit, cakes, and vegetables feature in nearly every story, often smashed, devoured, left to rot, or misplaced. It is these singular images that last much longer than the normal details I’d expect to recall from a story. After gaining some distance from when I read Ogawa, I don’t necessarily remember the gender or age of a narrator or the relationships between the two people in the scene. But I remember the affection of the tiger, the coat falling apart with each step through the snow, the kiwi juice on the girl’s hands, the too-raw tomatoes on the salad.
This collection is not chilling, sleep-disrupting horror. But to experience beautiful restraint in creating impactful images, Ogawa is masterful.
Scent Notes: day-old sweet creme, kiwi juice, and tiger musk