Ever since I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I’ve been in love with Japanese fiction. Much like my appreciation of the films of David Lynch, I enjoy these bizarre plots and strange events that happen to seemingly ordinary people. Yoko Ogawa wastes no time in capturing this sense of the uncanny immediately in Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales. The title can be a bit of a misdirection, as not all of the stories in this collection focus on revenge. However, they are extremely dark and will linger with you for quite some time after finishing. Several weeks later, I still find myself reflecting back on this wonderous collection.
Following an opening paragraph describing a beautiful Sunday in “Afternoon at the Bakery,” Ogawa creates a misleading scene with these ordinary descriptions of normal life:
“Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off in the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, entranced. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench knitting. Somewhere, a horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry. The mother hurried over to gather the child in her arms. You could gaze at this perfect picture all day-an afternoon bathed in light and comfort-and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.”
It doesn’t take long for Ogawa to get to the dark underneath this lovely scene. A woman enters a bakery to purchase a special treat for her son’s birthday. While normally a busy shop with a line out to the street, today it is eerily vacant. Eventually another customer enters and begins to have a conversation with the first woman. Discovering it is the other woman’s son’s birthday, she asks his age, to which the reply is “Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.” This simple tale of beauty turns into one of loss:
“He died twelve years ago. Suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator in a vacant lot. When I first saw him, I didn’t think he was dead. I thought he was just ashamed to look me in the eye because he had stayed away from home for three days.”
The story spirals downward from there. While for me this was my favorite piece of the collection, I raced through the rest of the book. It’s not entirely accurate to call this book a collection of short stories (Ogawa is full of contradictions) because each story connects to the following one, either through a character or event of the preceding one. For example, the second story “Fruit Juice,” focuses on the woman who was supposed to be working in the bakery that day. This makes the book feel like a giant mosaic rather than disparate tales, which I actually prefer.
As you’ve figured out by this point, Revenge is full of the macabre and intensity of emotions (which again are subtle, to some extent) and most of all it is also about the human condition. Each piece deals with either loss or loneliness which leads the characters to behave the way they do and not in the best ways. There are times when as a reader I was caught off guard, unable to predict the characters’ actions. Ogawa does manage to make the stories flow and evokes some different emotions, from the surreal to heartbreak. While a couple of the tales fall into straight horror, most of them focus on the impact grief has on the human psyche. Despite writing in sparse, short sentences (another Murakami motif), Ogawa can definitely put us in our feels. From a lover’s revenge on her cheating boyfriend to the sad death of a Bengal tiger, there is a wide range of emotions to find here. I also found that Ogawa is quite brilliant at capturing those subtle “blink and you’ll miss it” moments. Certain images definitely stayed with me, from kiwi trees in a field to a very powerful violin scene.
I certainly got that feeling of reading a work by Murakami when I started, but I was pleasantly surprised when Ogawa took this book into an orbit all her own. There’s the story of a purse designer whose customer is a woman who wants a designer bag for her heart which is growing outside of her chest. Another tale focuses on a museum that collects various torture devices from throughout history. Then, there’s a landlady who grows carrots that oddly are in the shape of human hands. While I wouldn’t call this book a work of magical realism, Ogawa does an excellent job staying right at its borders with these strange occurrences.
My only issue with the collection is that the characters’ voices are not distinctive enough, making it difficult to separate one character from the next. I had difficulty determining the age and gender of a particular narrator at the time. However, I found the prose itself to be very clean with an excellent translation from Stephen Snyder. Yoko Ogawa has achieved tremendous success in carving herself a place next to the magical Haruki Murakami. I look forward to becoming unsettled again through Ogawa’s mesmerizing writing.