Every once in a while a book sticks with me long after I’ve read it. Maybe it’s because the narrative was so unusual that it leaves a lingering impression or else there is such a memorable scene that weeks later it still has me chuckling or shaking my head. Frequently it might be a character who lodges herself in the recesses of my brain and refuses to be dislodged until a more unforgettable figure comes along. Other times the author’s mastery of language and prose might leave an indelible mark. In the case of Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, it was all of the above. These interconnected stories by Yoko Ogawa are subtly woven together on an off-kilter loom with threads that are twisted and pleasantly dark. The result is a warm blanket that soothes and comforts the reader against the macabre chill that pervades each tale. If you’re looking for something sophisticated, but slightly creepy, this is the book for you.
Menacing forces collide in Revenge, bringing together a variety of distressed individuals and laying bare the intensity of their emotions. At times, the scenes become slightly unnerving, if deliciously so, such as in the opening chapter where the main character stops at the local bakery to pick up a strawberry cake for her child. As innocuous as it seems at first, it turns out that the child is actually dead. In one tale, a beautiful cabaret singer approaches a renowned bag maker with a special request: construct the perfect container for her heart, which pumps away – outside her chest. Elsewhere, an aspiring writer takes a new apartment and finds out later that the landlady has murdered her husband. The only clue was a garden full of curiously misshapen vegetables.
Despite the fantastical elements that seem to pepper this collection, the protagonists nonetheless come off as real and grounded people, and the reader has no problem identifying with them. Each character must deal with anguish or loss in his or her own way, and the resulting mechanics provide both the impetus and entertainment for the reader. And even though the ostensible revenge may be the driving force for some of Ogawa’s characters, it constitutes only one of the themes explored in the book. Throughout the whole collection, the author seems to keep bringing up the question of mortality. It’s not surprising therefore that death is present in every tale, although it may not be the central event in each story.
The critically acclaimed author of The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa is a Japanese writer known for her slow pace and hypnotic style. According to Japanese literary great Kenzaburō Ōe, she “is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating.” Stephen Snyder, the translator of Revenge, has compared her work to that of Haruki Murakami while numerous reviewers have cited the influence that Borges and Poe have had on her. Yet while dark and supernatural forces may be at work in these stories, it’s easy to understand why Mythili G. Rao says that “Ogawa works in a register entirely of her own—and is much more interested in experimenting with form than with paying tribute to any particular style.”
Understandably, praise for Revenge has been lavish, with Shelf Awareness calling the book “a delicious mosaic that concerns much more than its titular subject, as the messy human emotional spectrum gets exposed in eleven compulsively readable tales that become increasingly multilayered and interlocked.” According to New York Magazine, “Every act of malice glows creepily against the plain background. Ogawa is an expert in doing more with less.” Alan Cheuse of NPR sums it up best for me when he says: “It’s not just Murakami but also the shadow of Borges that hovers over this mesmerizing book…one may detect a slight bow to the American macabre of E.A. Poe. Ogawa stands on the shoulders of giants, as another saying goes. But this collection may linger in your mind — it does in mine — as a delicious, perplexing, absorbing and somehow singular experience.”