Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales

By Yoko Ogawa (Stephen Snyder, translator)

Picador

ISBN: 978-0-312-67446-5

Feb, 2013; $14.00 PB, Deckle edged

Reviewed by K. H. Vaughan 

Yoko Ogawa is an award-winning Japanese writer whose fiction and non-fiction have appeared in over twenty languages. Her most recent work to be released in English, Revenge, is a story cycle comprised of eleven tales told in the first person by different narrators. Ogawa’s use of language is extraordinary. The stories are carefully crafted with prose both simple and poetic. She lures with the commonplace then surprises with grotesque imagery that is artfully described. Her characterization is likewise wonderfully skilled. The work is populated by people who seem healthy at first glance but are revealed to be in the grasp of profound crisis, obsession, and delusion.

It begins with a deceptively simple story of grief, but one soon discovers that each new narrator has appeared somewhere in a previous story, linking them in a web of shifting perceptions and shared events. Characters interact or pass by one another without knowledge of the larger connections between them. Their inability to see the big picture in the midst of their painful isolation renders their loneliness and alienation all the sadder.

It is seductive, the way the early stories are so prosaic. They are odd and melancholy to be sure, but deceptively ordinary. Yet, by the middle you have somehow wandered into territories dark and strange without realizing how you got there. The mundane has become a nightmare. The transition is so subtle that it leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling that you have somehow overlooked sinister horrors hidden in the earlier stories, and it is possible that you have.

By the end, it is not even clear which stories could be real or which might have been written by a character in the book.  In either case, the narrators have so little insight into themselves and their lives that none of their accounts can be trusted. It demands re-reading and one could easily become as obsessive as one of Ogawa’s subjects, tracing the timeline and connections between characters and events. Worse still, in the end, the macabre twists of Revenge suggest that every single person you interact with in daily life could be driven by a disturbing malice, or hiding madness behind a bland mask of sanity. It is a deliciously disturbing experience that echoes long after the book is done.

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