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In A Seaside Town, Hidden Desires Surface

Hotel Iris, Yoko Ogawa's tale of sadomasochistic love, is mercifully short. I say "mercifully" because this is a novel you find yourself reluctantly transfixed by. Ogawa is a writer capable of seducing readers against their will and, as proof of her power, she has racked up major literary awards in Japan and serious critical raves in the U.S. for many of her 20-some previous books. Like her compatriots Kenzaburo Oe and Natsuo Kirino, Ogawa is drawn to the grotesque in human personality and behavior; in Hotel Iris, a 1996 novella newly translated by Stephen Snyder, that fascination with the grotesque is explicitly -- even repellently -- sexual. This isn't the kind of redemptive novel suited for one of those brisk publisher appendices entitled "Questions for Book Group Discussion." Instead, think decadent, minimalist, profoundly sad and warped.

Ogawa's novel is set in a moldy seaside hotel presumably on the coast of Japan, but given the sparse detail here, it might as well be Torquay or the Jersey shore. Mari, our main character, is the 17-year-old high school dropout and daughter of the proprietor -- a widow who barks orders and cuts corners. When a newly arrived guest turns out to be blind, Mari's mother abruptly downgrades her room to the one with the worst ventilation and no view. Unconsciously revealing her mother's ruthless frugality of emotion, Mari recalls that when her grandfather became ill with cancer, "he suffered for almost six months, but he died in his own bed. We had given him one of the good mattresses from a guest room, but only after it had broken a spring. Whenever he turned over in bed, it sounded like someone stepping on a frog."

One evening in the off-season, something crashes in one of the few occupied rooms, and a disheveled woman, obviously a prostitute, runs out and down the stairs screaming curses. Her middle-aged customer also steps out of the room: He's impeccably neat, and when he coldly orders the prostitute to shut up, Mari is mesmerized by his voice. As she later says: "I was confused and afraid, and yet somewhere deep inside I was praying that voice would someday give me an order, too." Mari's dark wish is granted. When she spots the man again in town, she follows him and they strike up a conversation. She learns that the unnamed stranger works as a Russian translator and lives in an isolated house on an island off the coast. Soon, Mari is taking the ferry out there for trysts whose brutality is made all the more shocking by Mari's poetic, enthralled descriptions. Here's a relatively restrained snippet:

Mari subjects herself to all manner of humiliation without a trace of self understanding, and that emotional ignorance is precisely what will draw many readers in and compel us into subjecting ourselves to the harsh pleasures of this novel. We can connect the dots between Mari's mother's stinginess of spirit and the allure of the translator's cruelty, but Mari can't -- she's too young and too tamped down.

What also imbues Hotel Iris with an undeniable magnetism is Ogawa's mastery of mood: This is such an off-beat, out-of-time story. When the translator invites Mari to his house for a meal, all of the food turns out to be liquefied -- pureed fish and spinach. That's because the translator's nephew is visiting, and he has no tongue. The hotel Mari's mother owns is populated by sunburned guests who pile up dirty linen and dirty dishes filled with "bits of ham with teeth marks to be scraped away." Mari is virtually chained to the roach-ridden reception desk every day, relieved only by a maid who turns out to be a kleptomaniac. Hotels and beaches are transitory places that promise possibility; but, in this novel, taking a ferryboat out to sea only transports Mari to another form of servitude.

Using spare strokes and macabre detail, Ogawa creates an intense vision of limited lives and the twisted ingenuity of people trapped within them. You'll be glad you read Hotel Iris and also glad to check out.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.