Book review: Stories in 'Revenge' give glimpses into life's dark side
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, February 03, 2013
2/03/13 at 3:30 AM
Maybe the only false note in "Revenge," Yoko Ogawa's collection of serenely unnerving short stories, is the title.
As near as one can determine via Internet translators, the original title of this book, when it was published in Japan in 1998, was something along the lines of "Indecent Dead, Quiet Funeral."
These enigmatic phrases do a better job of evoking the atmosphere of these eleven dark tales, which recount in quiet, understated prose episodes in the lives of 11 nameless narrators - moments when reality slides imperceptibly yet inevitably into the bizarre and horrific.
Revenge plays a tangential role in only one of the tales - "Lab Coats," about two hospital workers sorting through the soiled coats of various doctors, as one of the workers obsesses about the doctor with whom she is having an affair.
It's also the only story in which the horror is overtly described - a bloody climax that wouldn't be out of place in a conventional horror film. But even this moment is couched in calm, almost detached language (well captured by translator Stephen Snyder), the same tone that imparts a distinctive chill to each of the stories in this collection.
The opening story, "Afternoon in the Bakery," is narrated by a woman wanting to purchase a strawberry shortcake to celebrate her son's birthday. As she waits to make her purchase, she begins a conversation with another customer. When asked how old her son is, she replies, "Six. He'll always be six. He's dead."
It's been 12 years since her son died, "suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator left in a vacant lot." And the woman's grief drives her to extremes, even to the point of trying to replicate her son's death, cleaning out her own refrigerator to understand what he felt.
While each story in "Revenge" is distinct, they are linked - objects, locations, individuals appear and reappear throughout the book. The strawberry shortcake in "Afternoon in the Bakery" shows up at the dinner in "Fruit Juice." The love triangle in "Lab Coats" affects the narrators of several other stories. The reasons why the tomatoes in one person's garden take on the shape of a human hand is gruesomely explained in another tale.
In "Sewing for the Heart," a man known for his skill at constructing handbags is approached by a woman born with her heart outside her chest to construct a protective case she could wear:
"The bag suited her to perfection. The lustrous finish of the leather set off the color of her skin, and its shape fit elegantly along the curve of her breast. The veins and arteries peeking out at the edges, the leather pulsating almost imperceptibly with each contraction, the strap caressing her graceful neck - I had never seen anything like it."
This bag will show up again, in "Welcome to the Museum of Torture," one of the items on display in the odd house a young woman happens upon, and which is overseen by a very old man, who lovingly conducts a tour through the objects twin sisters had accumulated before their deaths.
"But what did they want with all this?" the young woman asks. The caretaker replies, "The desires of the human heart know no reason or rule."
And that might well be the best way to sum up "Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales." The quiet tone of these stories, the almost tangential links between them, show how the benign can become sinister, how time and chance can lead to disaster.
Ogawa's book probably isn't for everyone - fans of gross-out horror will think it too slow, for example. But for those who appreciate the subtle terrors of Shirley Jackson or Robert Aickman, "Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales" is a must-read.
REVENGE: ELEVEN DARK TALES
By Yoko Ogawa. Translated by Stephen Snyder
Original Print Headline: Stories give glimpses into life's dark side
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478