Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder
Only reading from my TBR, I searched my shelves for books so that I could join in with January in Japan hosted by Tony’s Reading List. I could have chosen Murakami – but have had both good and bad experiences with him. It ended up being a choice between Out by Natsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa’s second novel – I chose Ogawa.
I read The Housekeeper and the Professor, review here, a couple of years ago. I was beguiled by that quirky yet serene novel, her debut. Hotel Iris has a similar air of aloofness in writing style, but the subject matter is in no way gentle like her debut …
Mari is a dutiful daughter, manning the desk at her family hotel, the Hotel Iris, situated in a Japanese seaside town. At seventeen, she is totally dominated by her mother who tells her she is beautiful, as every day she styles Mari’s hair into a traditional Japanese bun, held in place with camellia oil.
The book opens with a guest and the prostitute he’d brought back to the hotel causing a kerfuffle and being ejected. Mari is fascinated by the man’s voice. Later she sees him again and follows him. After a few days of stalking they strike up a conversation. He is a translator, and lives an ascetic life on the island off the coast.
The first shock is to find that he is a widower in his sixties, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Mari, she’s ready to fall in love. The second shock is when she goes with him to the island, and the third is when he ties her up and subjects her to degrading acts which she submits to with increasing pleasure – but always managing to catch the ferry home before her mother wonders where she is.
Earlier that same day, I had been tied to a bed with iron rails that were ideal for securing my ankles and wrists. He had cut away my slip with a large pair of scissors. The blades had been sharpened to a fine edge, and the steel had a dark sheen. He snapped them open and closed in the air, as if to test the sharpness and savor the sound. Then he drew them straight up my body from my spread legs, and the slip fell away as if by magic.
The blades touched my abdomen. A cold shock ran through me, and my head began to spin. If he had pressed just a bit harder, the scissors might have pierced my soft belly. The skin would have peeled back, the far beneath laid bare. Blood would have dripped on the bedspread.
My head had been filled with premonitions of fear and pain. I wondered whether his wife had died like this. But as these premonitions became realities, pleasure also erupted violently in me. I knew now how I reacted at such a moment: my body grew moist and liquid.
I had read elsewhere that this book is rather unsettling, but I didn’t really expect it to be quite like the above. To see a young girl submit to this, however loving the administrator is, does not make for easy reading.
When the translator’s nephew, a mute (due to tongue cancer) young man a year or so older than Mari, arrives for a holiday this really does complicate things. As you might imagine, this leads to the final climax.
Although I was naturally concerned for Mari’s plight, I found it hard to warm to her, and I remained deeply suspicious of the translator all the way through, but on the other hand this tale could be described as a coming of age story for Mari – acting out her dark schoolgirl fantasies. Still, once we see what he does to Mari, we have to wonder about his wife…
For such a dark and disturbing book, Ogawa’s prose, again translated by Stephen Snyder, is cool and always slightly aloof but it does reel you in. This book was such a contrast to the happy serenity of The Housekeeper and the Professor. I didn’t ‘enjoy’ reading Hotel Iris, but I was compelled to finish it though. (6.5/10)
Source: Own copy. Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage paperback, 176 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)