Review: Revenge by Yōko Ogawa

Yōko Ogawa is a master of subtle horror writing. The monsters that live in Revenge, her collection of short stories translated from Japanese, are not the repulsive kind that creep in the darkness. They are familiar, living and walking in the daylight. Readers of Han Kang and Samanta Schewblin will find something familiar in Ogawa’s precise and delicate approach to the macabre. She paints her world in broad, minimalist strokes, all so she can showcase the power of one well-placed detail.

In ‘Afternoon at the Bakery,’ a mother goes to buy strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday—a son who died years ago, suffocated in a refrigerator. In ‘Old Mrs. J,’ a young woman grows increasingly unsettled as her landlord keeps giving her produce from her garden, including carrots in the perfect shape of human hands. In ‘Sewing for the Heart’, a master craftsman obsesses over creating the perfect leather handbag for an unusual client, a bag meant to hold someone’s exposed heart. These are stories of obsession, denial, and repetition.

The stories tend to open rather innocently, but they turn grotesque with a single detail. Like a piece of fruit that looks perfect on the outside, these stories hide a mushy, overly-sweet secret that belies a rotten center. They rot from the inside out.

The first story in the collection, ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, features many of the nuances that exemplify Ogawa’s subtle style. The story opens with a polished sense of normalcy:

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 […] You could gaze at this perfect picture all day—an afternoon bathed in light and comfort—and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.

In the bakery, the protagonist admires the cakes and inquires at the counter. The story is striking not because of any sense of foreboding but for how overwhelmingly normal the scene is. It is only about halfway through the story that Ogawa inserts a quick and subtle detail that suddenly casts the sunny afternoon in a much more ominous shadow.

“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.”

He will always be six, a single precise detail that opens the door for horror. This ‘hidden detail’ takes many forms throughout the collection, but it’s most often found in the character’s motivations. In other stories, Ogawa will let an entire story unfold and wait until the last line to reveal that the protagonists’ intentions were not what we thought they were. In the scene at the bakery, this single detail suggests that the seemingly benign scene was always off from the very start—we simply didn’t realise it yet.

From here, now that the door is open, Ogawa relinquishes her restraint and lets some of the more dramatically grotesque imagery take over. The protagonist begins to reflect back on previous cakes from this ritual and how they’d sit on the counter for weeks, untouched and covered in layers of mold. Even as the disturbing imagery begins to seep into the story, Ogawa is not interested in the true source of horror, just the shadows it casts on the wall. In ‘Afternoon at the Bakery,’ Ogawa does not dramatize the mother finding her dead son. Instead, we see the grieving mother emptying the contents of her own fridge and crawling inside. Ogawa’s horror is what comes after; not a story of death but of grief.

While the stories stand firmly on their own, they are technically interconnected—though so loosely that it might go unnoticed. In ‘The Little Dustman,’ a man on a delayed train heading to a funeral recalls a short story that his stepmother wrote. That story, about the old lady who grew carrots in the shape of human hands, is the very plot of ‘Old Mrs. J’. In ‘Lab Coats’, a deranged hospital worker confesses that she brutally murdered her boyfriend after he arrived home late from a delayed train. In ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’, the protagonist learns that her upstairs neighbour was stabbed to death by his girlfriend—while she herself works at the same hospital where the tragedy in ‘Sewing for the Heart’ occurs.

These connections are dizzying—they are largely unnecessary and hard to keep track of. But their connectedness reinforces the atmospheric and pervasive terror of Ogawa’s world. It might comfort us as readers to think that these grotesque stories happen in isolation, but her loosely interconnected narrative creates an inescapable and claustrophobic space. In Ogawa’s world, if you look closely enough at anyone, you’ll find something rotten on the inside.

Revenge is a collection of stories that aims to unsettle more than to outright horrify. Ogawa’s less-is-more style will appeal to the more literary crowd, but one should not confuse her quiet horror for quiet storytelling. These are bold, uncanny, and fiercely original plot lines. Like in every collection of short stories, there are a few sleepers (for me they were ‘The Little Dustman’ and ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’), but Revenge maintains its steam all the way through. It’s easy to get lost in Ogawa’s nightmarish world, and when you do, you’ll find it’s eerily similar to your own.

A new edition of Revenge is available from Vintage.

Ian McMahon is founder and editor of New Gothic Review, an online literary magazine dedicated to modern gothic short fiction (@newgothicreview). He works in publishing in New York City and can be found on Twitter @IanMcMahonNY.

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