This is resoundingly a Japanese book, one that mutes horror in favour of character and deft prose.
Revenge: Eleven Dark TalesPublisher: Picador
Length: 162 pages
Author: Yoko Ogawa
Publication date: 2013-01
When it comes to a book titled Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, you may expect to find something bleakly horrific, especially given the Saw-like cover art and the fact that the jacket of the short story collection comes loaded with blurbs from none other than Joe Hill (who is the son of Stephen King) and Peter Straub (who has co-authored books with Stephen King). However, once you crack open the cover and start reading, you will find very little that is horrific or even vengeful on the printed page. Most of the violence takes place off the page, and that’s when there’s any violence to be found at all.
In fact, Revenge is more of a Japanese literary short novel, with its stories interconnecting in obvious and not-so-obvious ways that may make readers draw comparisons to Haruki Murakami. While Yoko Ogawa doesn’t play with pop culture conventions in the way that Murakami does, there’s undeniably a similarity in voice and tone. This is resoundingly a Japanese book, one that mutes horror in favour of character and deft prose. That may disappoint some, but for those looking for something a little unconventional, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales may be just the thing.
Revenge has actually been around, at least in its original Japanese form, for quite some time: the book was initially published in 1998, and has only now gotten around to an English translation. Its author comes with all sorts of accolades, having won the Shirley Jackson Award in 2008 and her novel Hotel Iris was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. It’s easy to see why Ogawa’s pen has come under such laudable scrutiny: as Revenge proves, she knows her way around setting a scene, and capturing the perfect ordinariness of everyday life. Take this opening passage from the book’s first story, “Afternoon at the Bakery”:
"It was a beautiful Sunday. The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight. Out on the square, leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze along the pavement. Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings."
As you can tell, Ogawa has a way of vividly capturing a scene and painting a picture inside your head in a very literary fashion. And part of the fun of Revenge is seeing how the stories interconnect with one another: a hamster that dies in one story makes a cameo appearance in another, and a curator of a museum of torture devices shows up again seemingly in the following two stories.
The stories also flirt with time and space, and it can make your head spin trying to figure out in which order the full narrative of these pieces are presented. My absolute favourite of these twisted tales is “Sewing for the Heart”, which appears halfway through the collection, as it's a rather delightful story of a bag maker who takes on a client who wants a handbag for her heart, which lies outside of her chest. It’s a metaphor for longing and literally capturing another one’s heart, as well as getting swept up in one’s own art.
However, most of the stories here don’t carry the same resonance or fireworks: they’re softly muted tales of mortality with sometimes a very peculiar twist. One story called “Old Mrs. J” features an elderly woman who grows carrots in her garden that is shaped like human hands. Then, spoiler alert, she murders her husband and buries his hands in his garden, which leads the reader to wonder about those carrots and just how edible they were.
Revenge does carry with it a few warts, particularly in the tone of these stories: the narrators all seem alike, with no variance of voice, which shatters the suspension of disbelief a little bit. And Ogawa breaks one of Kurt Vonnegut’s pieces for advice for young writers: always be upfront as to the gender (and, sometimes in the case of this book, age) of the person narrating the tale, and don’t suddenly mention it on, say, page 17. In many of these stories, the gender is unknowable until halfway or sometimes the very end of the piece, which is rather annoying and shatters the movie that is unspooling in your head. I would suppose that some will consider this to be part of the challenge of the book, the seemingly off-kilter aspect of the worlds that Ogawa is trying to create. However, it does get in the way of the telling of the stories, and having to reset your expectations as you read a piece is a little unsettling.
There’s actually a place in this work where Ogawa makes a self-conscious statement about her own writing: “The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot and characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.” While I’m not sure if this work has much of a re-readability factor to it, it's rather chilling in a quiet way, and the sway of the words on the page is sometimes remarkable and breathtaking. While Revenge sometimes isn’t really all that dark or horrific, and it won’t get your heart racing in the same way that reading a Stephen King novel will, it's distinctly different and a mildly fascinating work.
This short story collection, which runs a compact 160 pages or so, offers the occasional surprising twist, but is more often just a study in character. Soft and hardly edgy, Revenge works best as a quiet collection of literary fiction, and proof that the Japanese have different ideas of the horrific and terrifying. In this case, Ogawa’s world of terrible things just happens to be usually casually ordinary with a taste of the off-beat. It's a silently meditative work, and while it won’t happen to cause anyone to lose any sleep, it will make readers wonder just what perverse and abnormal things exist in seemingly everyday lives.
To that end, Revenge mildly succeeds in offering something truly different, even though it can be hardly categorized as “vengeful”. The lure is simply in the way of the words, and the telling of a slightly unordinary tale.