Finding Horror in the Details: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa has been gifting Japan with dark, obsessive fiction for over thirty years, but only some of her work in currently available in English. Ogawa’s debut The Breaking of the Butterfly won the 1988 1988 Kaien literary Prize, and since then she’s written a number of bestselling and award-winning novels and short stories, two of which were adapted into films. In 2006, she teamed up with a mathematician, Masahiko Fujiwara to write a non-fiction work about the beauty of numbers titled An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics. She won 2008’s Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection for The Diving Pool.

Revenge, which came out in 1998 in Japan, was translated into English by Stephen Snyder in 2013. It’s what’s referred to as “a collection of linked short stories”—but here the links tend to be macabre hinges that hint at a darker and far more frightening world than what we see on the page.

There are many different ways to build worlds. Revenge does it through a series of nested short stories. As you read each story, a character or detail from each one will carry over into the next, linking the stories in surprising and unsettling ways. But this isn’t just a game of spot-the-reference or an Easter Egg hunt—often Ogawa dispenses with the connection in the first paragraph to move on to a deeper story.

In “Sewing for the Heart,” an expert bag-maker tries to make a purse to hold a woman’s heart, which sits on the outside of her chest. He decides on a sealskin pouch, and in measuring her heart, notices that her blood is “clear, not red, pumping through the fine veins and arteries and then disappearing into her body.” We’re shown the heart, but denied blood. That is, until halfway through the story, when the man’s hamster dies. Not knowing what to do he wanders the city, mourning his pet, and finally gives up and stops at a burger joint.

When I went to throw the trash, I slipped the hamster out of the pouch, on the tray next to my food, and slid him into the bin. I don’t think anyone noticed.

He must be covered in ketchup by now.

Instead of blood we get ketchup. The animal proves to be the connective tissue this time, as the next story, “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” shows us a young woman spotting the hamster’s body in the trash as she runs errands. She comments on the hamster, then talks about a murder that occurred in her upstairs neighbor’s apartment, running over the details several times and imagining her upstairs neighbor slashing a man’s throat. Here we get the blood that was deferred in the previous story. After the woman’s boyfriend dumps her—seemingly for being unhealthily excited about the murder—she goes wandering just as the bag-maker did. Instead of a fast food restaurant, she finds the titular Museum of Torture. The curator takes her on a guided tour, and she happily imagines using the instruments on her now ex-boyfriend. Over only a few pages, Ogawa takes us from the sad, quiet death of a pet, through a violent murder, and into imaginings of torture, each scene punctuated with perfect details. Sometimes the connections are even more tenuous: in “Lab Coats,” one character simply knows a character who was stuck on the stalled train from the previous story, “The Little Dustman.” No other connection is needed—the same snowstorm that delayed a man traveling to his stepmother’s funeral may have saved another man’s marriage. The snow that caused so much pain a few pages ago now becomes an instrument of benevolent fate… or at least, it seems to, until, another two pages later, Ogawa reveals that it has also led to a murder.

Over the course of the book, Ogawa introduces us to hairdressers, hospital administrators, schoolchildren, writers, editors, and bakers. She takes us through ever strata of society, and in and out of spaces personal and private, each time with delicate control and intimate familiarity. She has an extraordinary ear for dialogue, particularly for the sorts of dropped bombs that show you what you need to know. And maybe best of all, she knows how to turn a story. In the collection’s opening, we’re introduced to an idyllic town on a lovely day:

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.

The day is so perfect, even bird shit is made magical. A woman waits in a sunny bakery to buy a pair of strawberry shortcakes—one for herself and one for her son. Another woman, the proprietor of a spice shop, tells her all about the quality of the bakery’s goods, taking special care to commend the baker for using her own shop’s spices:

“I can guarantee they’re good. The best thing in the shop. The base is made with our special vanilla.”

“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.”

In one four-line paragraph Ogawa turns the story from a celebration into a nightmare. The warmth of the day, the scent of pastries and fruit, the homely image of a mother buying cakes for her son—all of them are peeled back to show a grieving woman who commemorates her child’s life through a heartbreaking birthday ritual, and thinks nothing of casually laying her pain out for a stranger to see. From this moment on you know you’re in a far darker world than the one you first saw.

Some stories edge into supernatural horror: a gardener harvests a crop of hand-shaped carrots, and the mystery is only kind of solved when a body turns up, also in the garden, missing its hands; the aforementioned heart beats perfectly, exposed to open air; the woman who’s lost her son receives a call from an alternate universe where the boy had a chance to grow up. But most of the stories stick to pure modern Gothic: jealous lovers murder each other; doomed children suffocate in refrigerators; pet tigers prowl immaculate gardens. The whole book adds up to a tone more than anything else—the feeling that you’ve wandered into a garden in time to hear a terrifying story, only to discover that you can’t find your way out.

The first book I read for this column was Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. One of my favorite aspects of that book was the way Carter hopped in and out of different characters points of view. She destroyed the idea of a “main character” because she treated everyone like they were the main character of their own story. Ogawa does a similar thing through these linked short stories. By taking us around this unnamed town, and spinning us off into the lives of passersby, neighbors, pets, coworkers—Ogawa creates a living, thriving city full of people with their own histories and narrative arcs. As in life, there are no side characters. Each new character brings with them an entire history of desires and fears, and each story contains an entire world of hope and horror.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another will rise in its place. Come give her reading suggestions on Twitter!

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