I read Hotel Iris, my first Yoko Ogawa, last year (full-length review here) and had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I loved the prose: pure, pristine, and clear. But the story leaves something to be desired – its ending was rushed, abrupt, and anticlimactic. I loved Ogawa’s writing style enough to try again though, so here we are with a review of her short story collection Revenge.
Folks, I love Revenge. The collection is subtitled “Eleven Dark Tales” and it’s no joke. I was left feeling a bit grim post-reading. But if you wanted serial killers and vampires, Revenge isn’t for you. Revenge is more eerie than scream-inducing, its horror lies in atmosphere rather than bombast. And I do think Ogawa’s almost-surgical prose lends an iciness that adds to the creepy atmosphere of Revenge.
How to describe the stories in unison? Sometimes it feels as though they had a touch of magical realism. In “Old Mrs. J,” a murdered husband is buried in a garden patch, resulting in carrots shaped like human hands. In “Sewing for the Heart,” a nightclub singer’s heart is attached to her outer chest. Yet you can read all the stories as part of the realism genre. The heart condition can be waved off as a health anomaly, the weird carrots can be attributed to the seeds or the soil. But always there is an underlying sense of the uncanny.
Revenge plays into my favorite horror thematic: that the scariest actions aren’t caused by supernatural beings, but by the awful side of human nature. This is a short story collection about being lonely and adrift – and the horrifying things people do to feel a little less lonely and adrift. Misery loves company and if you can’t be a little less miserable, why not drag others into a state of misery?
I’m separated from my copy of Revenge as I write this review and I couldn’t find the full story list online, even Revenge’s Wikipedia page only noted eight stories. Surprisingly though, after some reminiscing, I remember the full list along with the general plot of each story. The incident speaks more of a strong short story collection than a superlative memory, sadly.
In case anyone is looking for Revenge’s story list, here it is in order: “Afternoon at the Bakery,” “Fruit Juice,” “Old Mrs. J,” “The Little Dustman,” “Lab Coats,” “Sewing for the Heart,” “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” “The Man Who Sold Braces,” “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger,” “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” and “Poison Plants.”
If you have read a review of Revenge, any review of Revenge, you’ll know that the stories are loosely connected. The eponymous man who sold braces, for instance, is also the curator of the Museum of Torture. But you can treat each story as a standalone piece.
I didn’t structure this review well, sorry, so I’ll just talk about some of my favorite stories in Revenge.
Of all the stories, “Old Mrs. J” has the most traditional Gothic horror feel. There’s a creepy old lady, there’s a grisly murder, and there’s some, shall we say, odd-looking harvest. Now, I love Gothic horror a lot, a lot, but when I got to “Sewing for the Heart,” I knew Revenge was something special. In fact, all the stories following “Sewing for the Heart” are excellent.
In “Sewing for the Heart,” a bagmaker is asked to create a bag to hold the heart of a young woman who suffers a health condition – her heart is attached to her outer chest. Only the best of horror stories can create such a building sense of dread and trepidation. You are helpless to keep on turning the pages as the bagmaker’s obsession grows and grows, as tensions twist and knot to a climax. The bagmaker’s dastardly decision at the end is grisly but unsurprising, and the fact that Ogawa conveyed such a perfectly-contained story in under twenty pages is astonishing.
“The Man Who Sold Braces” is a character study first, and what a great one it is. Somehow Ogawa, in her unflinching, unsentimental, and unclouded prose, managed to make the eponymous man, despite his endless list of failures and misdeeds, sympathetic.
Prior, I wrote that in Revenge, people will perform dark deeds to be a little less lonely and adrift. But “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” a quieter story than its predecessors, is an inversion. It turns out, people will also abandon self-preservation in their desperation to connect with another. People will go to extreme lengths, either way, to feel less unmoored in life, it seems.
The concluding story “Poison Plants” is also a quiet tale, with an unrelenting sadness rendered in Ogawa’s icy touch. This story made me fearful of aging, seeing how pathetic it made our narrator.
Bottom line: Revenge is an excellent collection, even if horror is not to your taste. Most of the horror is borne from a dark look at human nature, so I’d say Revenge is great for fans of literary fiction. It’s certainly one of this literary fiction devotee’s favorite reads of the year so far.