By Yoko Ogawa (New York: Picador, 2010, 176 pp., $14, paperback)
“If Mother is so intent on paying me compliments, it might be because she doesn’t really love me very much. In fact, the more she tells me how pretty I am, the uglier I feel. To be honest, I have never once thought of myself as pretty … She combs in camellia oil, making sure every hair is lacquered in place. I hate the smell. Sometimes she pins my hair with a cheap barrette. ‘There,’ she says, with a deep satisfaction in her voice, ‘All done.’ I feel as if she’s hurt me in a way that will never heal.”
Such is the quality of Ogawa’s poignantly terse, Hemingway-like prose in “Hotel Iris,” which is the third of the trilogy published by Picador in the past three years. Much like her other novels, she maintains the calm that mirrors the seascape against which the story takes place. Mari is a young girl who, despite the tranquility and freedom of the sea surrounding her, has grown up bitter against her controlling mother and against her stifling existence as the receptionist of the hotel run by her family.
Longing for an escape, Mari’s imagination is captured by a man who is kicked out of her mother’s hotel for mistreating a prostitute. He is strangely gentlemanlike, and young Mari begins a courtship of sorts that eerily exists between a dream and reality, between wishful fantasy and truth. The translator is utterly indecipherable and Mari is bafflingly blank. Ogawa masterfully brings out the most repugnant yet the most beautiful in this man, who has a deep love for literature and the work that he does, yet is driven from within by a past guilt to perform perverse sexual acts. Mari is an innocent young girl inexplicably filled with a void that causes her to be more and more flippant about how she involves herself in this man’s life. In the end, she finds herself farther along a slippery slope than she expects, but seems to take it all in a cool stride.
Readers who would like to read the better of Ogawa’s work should turn to “The Diving Pool” instead of this volume, because it feels like some of her tropes are a bit overused at this point. However, as always, Ogawa creates a world of frightening poignancy in “Hotel Iris.” The sheer beauty of the prose confuses the horror of the plot and in this book’s case, muddles it and turns it a bit cliche, but it remains nonetheless the story of a girl and a man who leave the reader sad and confused.