Yoko Ogawa; translated by Stephen Snyder. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales. New York, NY: Picador, 2013. 162 pp. $14.00, paper.
The stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales are not horror stories, as the front cover and the title of this collection might suggest. Instead, these eleven linked tales are “dark” because they are primarily concerned with those things that are traditionally kept out of the light: grief, tragedy, the desire to harm others, death, mental illness, alienation, obsession, failure, loss. Ogawa drags these disturbing subjects into the light, prying into her characters’ most private fears and desires. Her narratives are engrossing, twisting into unpredictable and peculiar shapes, and her prose is swift, unadorned, and powerful.
“It was a beautiful Sunday,” the first story begins. “The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight…Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on a drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings…You could gaze at this perfect picture all day…and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.”
From here, Ogawa makes a habit of uncovering the undercurrent of strangeness and imperfection that runs beneath seemingly unremarkable and familiar scenes. She draws attention to the missing details, illuminating the hidden sadness, anger, and violence that lurk in the corners of daily life. A mother continues to buy her deceased son strawberry shortcakes for his birthday years after the child suffocated to death in an abandoned refrigerator. Two elderly women build a museum that displays used implements of torture. A woman whose husband is having an affair accidentally stumbles upon the dying moments of a pet Bengal tiger, and takes comfort in stroking the tiger’s fur during its last breath.
I was most impressed with the story “Old Mrs. J,” a tale about a writer who observes the unsettling behavior of her landlady, Mrs. J, whose husband recently went missing. Soon, Mrs. J’s garden begins to produce carrots that are shaped uncannily like human hands. The story skillfully walks the line between the supernatural and the simply strange. The mournful tale is set against the backdrop of a garden of rustling kiwi trees, which rivals any Gothic castle in the category of best creepy locale: “The kiwis…grew so thick that on moonlit nights when the wind was blowing, the whole hillside would tremble as though covered with a swarm of dark green bats.” The story is masterfully paced—eerie and unnerving in all the right places—and old Mrs. J is a villain to delight in.
Another standout was “Sewing for the Heart,” a story in which a bag maker is tasked with crafting a custom bag for the heart of a nightclub singer. The singer’s heart is exposed, having grown on the outside of her chest. The narrative is captivating, and the descriptions of the heart are beautiful and surprising: “It looked like a spider, or a work of modern art. Or a fetus that had just started to grow.” Of all the narrators in the collection, the voice of this obsessive bag maker struck me as the most memorable and interesting. “When you live alone as I have for many years,” the bag maker reports, “daily life only becomes simpler and simpler.” But before the reader can feel too sorry for this isolated man, he assures the reader that his passion for his work is quite a different thing. “You may be thinking that a bag is just a thing in which to put other things,” he explains. “And you’re right, of course. But that’s what makes them so extraordinary. A bag has no intentions or desires of its own, it embraces every object that we ask it to hold…To me a bag is patience; a bag is profound discretion.” The bag maker becomes obsessed with the singer’s heart and with the bag he is constructing for it. The narrative parades on towards an inevitable, yet still striking, conclusion.
The stories in the collection are linked to one another, but in puzzling and tangential ways. The broken-hearted beautician in “Welcome to the Museum of Torture” finds the dead hamster that belonged to the bag maker in “Sewing for the Heart.” A teenager coping with her mother’s illness in “Fruit Juice” discovers an abandoned post office full of kiwis, which was stockpiled by the sinister landlady from “Old Mrs. J.” This same teenage girl plays a bit part in the first story in the collection, as an adult, crying in the kitchen of a bakery. Tracking the elaborate web of intersecting points is extremely satisfying, but the overlapping details do not provide the impression of unification. Instead, there is a randomness to the way the characters’ stories bump up against one another, which only highlights how untethered and unknowable the characters are.
The people that inhabit the world of this collection are outsiders. They are lonely and alienated, and for the most part they keep their emotions and desires hidden. But in each story the characters experience a few heart-wrenching moments of connection and honesty. A novelist who finds it too difficult to fit into the role of wife and mother says goodbye to her stepson for the last time: “You’ve been a good boy…I wish that I was so good.” When the curator of the Museum of Torture is asked if he ever has the urge to try out any of the instruments, he finally, grudgingly, admits, “I don’t exhibit an object unless I have the desire to use it.”
Although it is tempting to draw comparisons to the work of such diverse writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Haruki Murakami, Shirley Jackson, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Ogawa’s prose is wholly unique. The tales found in Revenge are perhaps most accurately compared to the kind of eerie dreams that take our familiar world and knock it just slightly off-kilter. This absorbing and inventive collection certainly has the same effect as an off-putting dream: it will leave you mesmerized, unsure, and shaken.