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Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Hotel Iris" by Yoko Ogawa (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Yoko Ogawa at Wikipedia
Order Hotel Iris HERE

INTRODUCTION: I have heard of Yoko Ogawa in connection with her most famous novel, translated as The Housekeeper and the Professor. I got a copy of that one a few years ago when it was published here in the US though I have not read it yet, but recently I opened her newest (2010) English translation, Hotel Iris and I was hooked.

"In a crumbling seaside hotel on the coast of Japan, quiet seventeen-year-old Mari works the front desk as her mother tends to the off-season customers. When one night they are forced to expel a middle-aged man and a prostitute from their room, Mari finds herself drawn to the man's voice, in what will become the first gesture of a single long seduction. In spite of her provincial surroundings, and her cool but controlling mother, Mari is a sophisticated observer of human desire, and she sees in this man something she has long been looking for."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Hotel Iris" is a short but very compelling first person novel. I think that its distinctive voice makes it so good - lonely, overworked and generally neglected teenager Mari whose widow mother uses as unpaid labor to run their hotel Iris in a Japanese holiday resort by the sea.

So not only was Mari forced to drop out of school a few years back, but she basically has very little time or money for herself and while her mother likes to groom her - after all an attractive face behind the counter brings is better for business than an ugly or unkempt one - she otherwise treats Mari mostly as "property".

"After Grandfather died, Mother made me quit school to help at the hotel. My day begins in the kitchen, getting ready for breakfast. I wash fruit, cut up ham and cheese, and arrange tubs of yogurt in a bowl of ice. As soon as I hear the first guests coming down, I grind the coffee beans and warm the bread. Then, at checkout time, I total the bills. I do all of this while saying as little as possible. Some of the guests try to make small talk, but I just smile back. I find it painful to speak to people I don’t know, and besides, Mother scolds me if I make a mistake with the cash register and the receipts are off."

There is a little backstory about Mari's father who died in an accident/drunken fight some years back at age 31 and whose memory Mari worships as he was the only really kind influence in her life, despite his bouts of drunkenness and fights with her mother.

Given the above, Mari seems to be an easy prey for an older man whom despite his sort of distinguished appearance is first seen when thrown out of the hotel for abusing a prostitute he brought there. Seeing him by chance some two weeks later when out on errand for her mother, Mari follows him and the two are drawn together as unlikely as it seems.

"Then one night my father didn’t come home at all. He was still missing the next day, and my mother scolded me for running out of the lobby again and again to see if he was coming down the street. His body was found late that night, his face so swollen and covered in blood that it was almost unrecognizable. After that, I stopped waiting.

There was nothing of great importance in the translator’s letters—the arrival of summer, his work, the progress of Marie’s romance, references to our walk on the cape—but I enjoyed his formal, slightly peculiar way of expressing himself.

The most important minutes of my day were those spent hidden behind the front desk, poring over his letters. I would cut open the envelope with great care, read the letter three or four times, and then refold it exactly along the creases he had made."

Things however are not that simple and while the man seems to be the classical sexual predator: older, widowed and with rumors of his wife's death being a murder, living by himself in an isolated house on a nearby island which is little populated etc etc, the story definitely does not go that route though it has its share of stuff that may seem twisted.

However, the language is never explicit and the book just flows on the page, while the tension builds page by page as the secret relationship of the two cannot stay secret for ever in such a small place and something will have to give...

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