January in Japan: Yoko Ogawa and Natsuo Kirino

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996/2010)
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Seventeen-year-old Mari is working at her mother’s hotel when a middle-aged man and a prostitute are thrown out for rowing and disturbing the other guests. Mari is drawn to the man, and starts to see him regularly; he tells her that he’s a Russian translator – the heroine of the novel he’s working on is even named Marie. The two enter into an intimate, masochistic relationship – which, naturally enough, can’t last forever.

Hotel Iris is a quiet book, and all the more powerful and disturbing for it. So thoroughly does Ogawa create the viewpoint of Mari as she’s drawn into the translator’s orbit, it’s a real jolt to be reminded that this man’s intentions are questionable at the very least. But what makes the novel particularly challenging to consider is that Ogawa is clear on the affair’s positive consequences for Mari, as well as the negative ones: it gives her an escape from being put-upon by her mother, however dangerous it might turn out to be. Hotel Iris is an uncomfortable read, in the best possible way.

Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicle (2008/12)
Translated by Rebecca Copeland

The latest title in the Canongate Myths series is inspired by the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi – which isn’t a story I know, so inevitably I’m going to miss out on something here. But the intriguing thing for me is that The Goddess Chronicle is written by Natsuo Kirino, and at first glance seems quite different from a gritty urban novel like Out. But look closer, and similarities emerge: both books focus on female characters who try to escape a system designed to hold and define them.

Our narrator is Namima, whom we first meet as a servant of the goddess Izanami in the Realm of the Dead; Kirino’s novel is the story of how she got there. Namima is born on a tiny island, granddaughter of its spiritual leader, the Oracle. It’s a hereditary position, though Namima’s older sister Kamikuu is destined to become the next Oracle – and it’s not until Kamikuu takes over that Namima learns her preordained role as the Oracle’s sister: to watch over the island’s graveyard for the rest of her life, with no human contact. Namima tries to escape the island with the boy she loves – but tragedy strikes, and she finds herself in Izanami’s realm.

A number of stories overlap in The Goddess Chronicle. There’s Namima’s childhood on the island, which has a measured clarity tempered with a touch of strangeness. There is Namima’s sojourn in the world of the living as a wasp, a fine ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale. And there is the story of Izanami and her brother/lover/enemy Izanagi, which now has Namima as a witness. Their story provides a point of comparison and contrast with Namima’s own. All is wrapped up in clean prose that gives this engaging novel a mythic feel of its very own.

January in Japan is a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Click here for the index of my posts.

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3 Comments

  1. have both of these & intend to read them fairly soon, having enjoyed previous work by both writers.

  2. Loved ‘Hotel Iris’, a powerful, dark novel that hints at what else might be waiting to be translated into English…

  3. Having read three of Kirino’s works, I’ve been wanting to read The Goddess Chronicle from the moment I heard of it. Sounds like an interesting change from her other works.

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