Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa
Picador USA
22 January 2008
164 Pages
Japanese Literature
3 Stars

Barnes & NobleBook Depository; Goodreads

The first major English translation of one of contemporary Japan's bestselling and most celebrated authors From Akutagawa Award-winning author Yoko Ogawa comes a haunting trio of novellas about love, fertility, obsession, and how even the most innocent gestures may contain a hairline crack of cruel intent.  A lonely teenage girl falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool--a peculiar infatuation that sends unexpected ripples through her life.  A young woman records the daily moods of her pregnant sister in a diary, taking meticulous note of a pregnancy that may or may not be a hallucination--but whose hallucination is it, hers or her sister's?  A woman nostalgically visits her old college dormitory on the outskirts of Tokyo, a boarding house run by a mysterious triple amputee with one leg.  Hauntingly spare, beautiful, and twisted, The Diving Pool is a disquieting and at times darkly humorous collection of novellas about normal people who suddenly discover their own dark possibilities.

This book is really difficult to classify.  A collection of three novellas, its unsettling tone doesn't quite qualify as horror, though I was horrified at times.  Nor is it strictly contemporary, disqualified by its more surreal moments.  Pressed to categorize it, I would say it's a psychological horror.  

The first novella, "The Diving Pool," was my favorite.  In it, a teenage girl whose parents run an orphanage harbors an obsession for her foster brother, as well as a penchant for cruel deeds.  Though she does mortifying things, I found myself relating to her and even sympathizing with her, which was troubling.  I felt that I truly understood her, and that made this story the most personal for me.  It was also the most straightforward and realistic.  Rated alone, I give it a 3.5.  

"Pregnancy Diary" came next, and this was my least favorite.  It's a record that a young woman keeps concerning her sister's pregnancy.  Much of it had to do with her sister's relationship with food, and her own passive-aggressive maliciousness toward her.  Unlike the other two, the subtlety of this story was lost upon me, and I felt a vast distance between the main character and me.  Moreover, though the description questions whether the pregnancy (and even her sister) are a hallucination, I never saw where this could have been called into question.  I give this novella a 2.5.

Finally, there was "Dormitory," the least realistic and most open-ended of the three novellas.  It tells of a middle-aged woman who waits to join her husband in another country, helping her cousin find a dormitory in the meantime.  Rather than preparing for her move, she becomes captivated by the dormitory manager, a triple amputee, and her relationship to him and the housing becomes disquieting.  Even though this story was perplexing, I enjoyed the completely confounding ending, but I had a difficult time understanding the main character.  I give it a 3.

I wouldn't think of this collection as character-driven by any means.  Rather, it is centered around its themes of loneliness and human cruelty, and even how those two things are related.  The women in each of these stories are all lonely and isolated, and this brings their sadism to the surface.  Whether it's callous brutality or heartless neglect, each of the women have their darkness. 

Another idea that played out in "The Diving Pool" was that of darkness being drawn to the light.  The main character was attracted to her foster brother, Jun, because he was so pure and so good.  She realized that she had a streak of wickedness within her, and she felt that intimacy with him could cleanse her.  I found this paradoxical to my usual belief that dark deeds flee from the illumination that would expose them; therefore, I thought a lot about the relationship of self-proclaimed "bad" people and those they deem "good."  

Less than trying to entertain her reader, Ogawa uses these themes to invite the reader to explore the intricacies of humanity and psychology.  Fittingly, she manages to make the journey as warped and disconcerting as possible.

Ogawa's writing style deeply impressed me.  I have never read a work so minimalistic that packed such emphasis.  Not a word is wasted, and each one is carefully chosen to create a  disturbing, chilling tone without any gore, explicit violence, or supernatural power.  I was thoroughly creeped out while reading this book, though there was nothing happening that was truly frightening.  Ogawa is a master at her craft.

Though the writing was superb and the themes relatable, the novellas didn't quite hit their mark with me.  "The Diving Pool" was wonderful and left me gasping, but the surrealism of the last two, as well as my inability to truly understand the choices and motives of the women, disappointed me in comparison.  

I give this collection 3 stars.

Have you read any works by Ogawa?  What do you think?  Or do you have any Japanese literature recommendations?  Please tell me in the comments below.

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Happy reading!