Book review: Revenge is sweet...and strange

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 3, 2013

REVENGE

By Yoko Ogawa

Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder/Harvill Secker/Paperback/162 pages/ $20.95/Major bookstores/*****

Yoko Ogawa's fourth novel to be translated into English is a technical and emotional marvel.

Read forwards, Revenge is an exquisitely crafted set of linked stories that flows in and out of the lives of one odd protagonist after another. It starts with a woman who buys a birthday cake for her long-dead son every year, moves on to the tale of the lonely baker responsible for these sweet treats and slowly forward to other characters whose stories are connected to theirs, though sometimes unobtrusively.

Comparisons could be made with other books with a similar structure, perhaps Jennifer Egan's award-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010) or Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins (2012).

Yet in the case of Egan's homage to the music industry and Walter's paean to the silver screen, the final construction is a map of human relationships, a passionate panorama of emotion.

Ogawa's creations do not form as grand and hopeful a picture. Each story has in common a deeply isolated protagonist who nevertheless has such a rich inner life that he or she need not be pitied.

What emerges is a beautifully detailed gallery of self-portraits, individually mesmerising and eerily breathtaking in total, a tight construction of nested stories that fit perfectly within each other and bend the laws of fictional reality by allowing the last tale to contain the first. The final twist is such that the reader can now read the book backwards, chapter by chapter, and marvel at the new shape taken by the story.

Revenge is an odd title for this collection, though at least three stories have a protagonist reacting against perceived slights. Rather than vengeance, each character is granted a chance to set the record straight in his or her own words, even if he or she is also seen through another lens in separate stories.

Sometimes this results in unsettling dislocations, such as when a young man's memory of his stepmother's sadness at the zoo is overturned when the older woman recalls the same event in a later tale and paints him in the more pitiful light.

But that is the charm of Ogawa's writing, an exoticism that has nothing to do with the story's setting in space or time. Her characters could emerge in any metropolis or be the stranger next door or in the same queue at a bakery.

Her skill is in revealing the strangeness within the human heart, in books such as twisted love story Hotel Iris (2010) or the odd contrived family made by The Housekeeper And The Professor (2008), both also translated by Stephen Snyder.

Yet - and this may be testament to the fluency of the translator - Ogawa's writing is luminous, shedding a kindly light on the dark recesses she exposes.

Her characters exist in a sort of hyperreality, feeling everything more intensely, from the heat of the sun to the onceremoved pain of an accident report in the newspaper. Their reactions, whether sorrow, joy or excitement are equally powerful and rather alarming, since these deep feelings are kept submerged and rarely allowed to surface in polite company.

But then this is a truth readers know and reject every day, that ordinary men and women harbour the most extraordinary secrets and thoughts. What draws the reader in is the author's promise to reveal their hidden depths.

The stories then go on to prove yet another uneasy fact, that every human mind apart from our own holds a frightening, alien strangeness. Yet if we, too, are monsters from another's perspective, what should we really fear?

akshitan@sph.com.sg