Monday, February 4, 2013

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, by Yoko Ogawa

Picador, 2013 (first US edition)
originally published as Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai 
translated by Stephen Snyder
162 pp

..."suffering comes from the slow but steady sense of loss..."

The quiet tone of these eleven stories is only one thing that belies the disturbing nature of these tales of suffering, loss and people who become "damaged, ruined beyond repair." Normally when I pick up a book of short stories I am expecting the typical anthology where sometimes when I'm lucky, there is a clear thematic structure that binds the narratives together, and I was expecting something along these lines as I started the first page.  I wasn't disappointed; frankly, I was quietly surprised when I started to discover connections between the stories.  It started slowly at first, but as they started popping up more frequently, I stopped reading, went back to the beginning and grabbed a notebook and a pen.  Just as an aside, I can't write in my books -- it's sheer anathema to me and I never even did it while I was in graduate school while reading hundreds of different texts -- that's why post-its were invented.  Anyway, starting over and reading much more carefully, the connections started leaping out at me (noted below in photos) and I was sucked right into this strange world of  this seaside town. 

note taking with connections arrowed, underlined, boxed or noted with !!
 What is also striking about these stories is that each one seems to open rather benignly, inviting you in.  Little by little you start to get used to the environment and maybe for a little while feel comfy where you are. The first story, "Afternoon at the Bakery," for example, begins with a look at a nearly picture perfect scene of families strolling through a square during "an afternoon bathed in light and comfort,"  kids watching a balloon man ply his trade and a woman knitting on a bench. From there the action shifts to a bakery, where "everything looked delicious," with the "sweet scent of vanilla" hanging in the air.  Once you've grown accustomed to your surroundings, however, you realize that something is just a bit off-kilter.  The first hint comes when there's no one at the counter to help the customer/narrator who comes in, even though the friendly woman smelling of "overripe fruit"(!!) who pops in shortly afterward assures the customer that she's sure the girl will be right back.  As the two women start making small talk  it turns out that  the customer is there to buy her son strawberry shortcake for his birthday:

"I'm buying them for my son. Today is his birthday."
"Really? Well, I hope it's a happy one. How old is he?"
"Six. He'll always be six. He's dead."   

 Not only is the boy dead, but he had died twelve years earlier, suffocating in an abandoned refrigerator. Even stranger is what the second woman says to the boy's mother:
 "Well,...then it was lucky you chose this bakery. There are no better pastries anywhere; your son will be pleased. And they include a whole box of birthday candles for free. They're darling -- red, blue pink, yellow, some with flowers or butterflies, animals, anything you could want."  
The story continues to darken with the mother's memories of the day her son died and how she suffered in the aftermath; and by now you have been jolted out of the comfort of the warm, cozy, vanilla-scented bakery and thrust into a strange and growing darkness.   Even the scene in the square  takes on a surreal tone as the clock strikes five. People gather to watch the little automata come out of the clock door, but what emerges is not what you'd expect: instead it's a parade of a chicken, some soldiers, and a skeleton, followed by an angel who is "beating her golden wings."

I'm not going to go into the other ten stories but the point is that each starts out so normally that you truly can't even begin to imagine what is waiting in store for you as you turn each page. As you read, as each story unfolds, the connections that are found in each and every story only heighten the strangeness --  until the last story brings about quite possibly the strangest tie of all, reminding you that there really is no end to it all.  Suffering and pain,  death and loss are all connected here in this fictional world, just as they are in the real one, but here the author makes the links painfully clear where that's not always possible in reality. She does it in such a way that seemingly normal situations head down a path where these connections all resonate within a bizarre, claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere.  

I have to say that I have never in my entire life read anything quite like Revenge, and I probably never will again.  It is truly a masterpiece of darkness and the best advice I can offer is this: run, do not walk to your nearest bookseller to pick up a copy, or get on your computer and order it online.  You definitely do not want to miss this very strange but at the same time magnificent little book.  As it sits right now, it is my favorite book of the year so far. 


  1. Yeowwwee, Nancy. You nailed the review on this one. We'll all have to go out and buy the book. Hope you sent a link to Picador. They'll be pleased.

    1. Thanks, Trish, but I wouldn't have any clue where to send it!


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