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Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Diving Pool - Yoko Ogawa - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2009

I came across this collection of three novellas (or three short stories) when I was reading another review of the wonderful “the briefcase” by Hiromi Kawakami, a novel shortlisted for the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize. That review was liked to a Japanese Literature Challenge, and this month the theme was short stories and they had suggested a number of collections. This was the only one I could find through my affiliation with the Book Depository.

Yoko Ogawa has won a number of Japanese literary awards and this collection itself was awarded the Shirley Jackson Award in 2008 – an award that recognises “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and the dark fantastic”.

“The Diving Pool” consists of three novellas (approximately 55 pages each) and all are narrated by a female protagonist – each of them questioning or revealing a dark side that is generally hidden.

When we grow up, we find ways to hide our anxieties, our loneliness, our fear and sorrow. But children hide nothing, putting everything into their tears, which they spread liberally about for the whole world to see. I wanted to savour every one of Rie’s tears, to run my tongue over the damp, festering, vulnerable places in her heart and open the wounds even wider.

Our first story is “The Diving Pool” told to us by the daughter of a religious couple who also run an orphanage. She spends her idle time observing (from a hidden place) one of the orphans, Jun, whilst he practices his diving. She is hopelessly in love with Jun, waiting to run into him, awaiting a single word, this is a young girl who feels she has no family of her own, with a clear obsession. She plays tricks on younger orphans forcing them to cry so she can take control.

Our second story is “Pregnancy Diary” and as the title suggests it follows the course of a pregnancy through our protagonist’s diary. Her sister announces her pregnancy, suffers violent morning sickness, recovers and becomes obsessed with eating (homemade grapefruit jam). But the linear plot is only part of the tale, as we learn more about our narrator and her relationship with her sister, her dark side (will the jam made from imported fruit distort the unborn child’s chromosomes?) and her sister’s pre existing mental illness.

The third instalment is “Dormitory” where our story teller is reintroduced to a long forgotten cousin who is searching for a dormitory to stay in whilst he attends college. She is home alone awaiting instructions from her husband as to a potential long term move overseas, so takes her cousin to the dormitory where she stayed when studying. It is decaying and is run by a man who has no arms and only one leg, who is also falling into decay.

Each of the stories contains references to the human body being “physical specimens” the elegance, muscle definition and grace of the diver, the changing shape of the pregnant sister, the amputee who is obsessed with the beauty of other’s hands and feet. They all also contain references to physical decay, whether human or buildings in each story:

It had clearly aged. There was no striking change in the overall appearance, but each individual detail – the doorknob in the front hall, the rails on the fire escape, the antenna on the roof – seemed older. IT was probably just normal wear and tear, given how long I’d been away. But at the same time there was something deep and weary about the silence that hung over the place, something almost sinister that could not be explained away by the fact that it was spring break and the residents would be absent.

Each of our voices hides a deep seeded dark, bleak obsession, whether it is love, anxiety, fear, each and every time they push themselves to realise that darkness even more:

I’m usually anxious when I’m waiting for something – even when it’s someone else’s labor pains. It scares me to think how nervous my sister must be. I’d like this hot, uneventful afternoon to go on forever.

This collection of stories is dark, they are bleak, the look at human frailties and push them to their limits, they explore obsession, decay, mental illness and the human form and it’s fragile state. All from the quiet brooding mannered voice of the minor character – a Japanese female. A great introduction to Yoko Ogawa’s writing and one I’m glad I picked up.

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Tony Malone said...

I've had this on the shelf for a while now, but it may wait until January. I loved 'Hotel Iris' (very dark) but only liked the better-known 'The Housekeeper and the Professor' (a bit too fluffy). I was promised a copy of 'Revenge' by the publisher too, but it never eventuated :(

Tony Messenger said...

It's a quick read Tony - as you know I can procrastinate but this one took me a single night - 150 easy pages. I never thought I'd be reading a story about a triple amputee who has a student go missing and a large spreading stain on his ceiling.

Bellezza said...

I think Yoko Ogawa is especially adept at looking at obsessions such as love, anxiety, and fear. Her collection of short stories found in Revenge were so dark, to me, that I did not finish the book. However, I am quite fascinated by the review that you have put up for The Diving Pool in terms of the characters' manipulations as well as the themes of decay. I had not heard mention of the later before. Might I recommend Ogawa's book The Housekeeper and The Professor? It is not dark at all, but rather portrays a lovely, unconventional family.

Tony Messenger said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog Bellezza. I may get to other Ogawa works at some stage - the 13 Man Booker Longlist for 2013 await my obsessive behaviour first. The decay theme is in each story of The Diving Pool but I may have misread things (generally buildings). It's great to have a new reader of my reviews.