‘The Diving Pool’ by Yoko Ogawa (Review)

Today’s review is a special one as it’s a post on the first of the January in Japan readalongs 🙂  I’ll be collecting the thoughts of all participants over at the JiJ blog, but first I’m posting my review here.  The book?  Well…

*****
The Diving Pool (translated by Stephen Snyder) was the first of Yoko Ogawa’s works to appear in English, although the word ‘work’ is a bit of a misnomer.  The book is a collection of three of Ogawa’s novellas and is a great introduction to her dark, twisted world…

First up is the title story, ‘The Diving Pool’, in which we meet, Aya, the daughter of a pastor and his wife who run an orphanage called Light House.  Life isn’t so sunny for Aya, who is bitter that she is growing up along with the abandoned kids in the orphanage.  Her main pleasure lies in secretly watching Jun, a fellow resident, as he practises his dives at the school pool, and she cherishes her secret crush…

However, increasingly bitter and neglected, Aya has developed an evil streak, and Ogawa slowly reveals Aya’s true nature.  In her treatment of Rie, an eighteen-month-old orphan, she shows unthinking, ruthless cruelty.  It’s not only when she’s bad that Aya seems a little off though; even the most commonplace discussions can seem not quite right:

“I hurt my wrist today,” he said.  “I must have hit the water at a funny angle.”
 “Which one?”
 He shook his left wrist to show me.  Because his body was so important to me, I lived in fear that he would injure it.  The flash in his eyes as he was about to dive, the glint of light on his chest, the shapes of his muscles – it all aroused in me a pleasant feeling that usually lay dormant.
‘The Diving Pool’, p.15 (Harvill Secker, 2008)

We’re never quite sure how events will play out in this tale, and there is a great twist to finish the story off…

*****
The middle story, ‘Pregnancy Diary‘, is Ogawa’s Akutagawa-prize-winning piece.  A pregnant woman’s sister keeps a diary, which as well as documenting the progress of the pregnancy sets the sister’s feelings down on paper.  Once again, our narrator is a twisted soul, and the further we get into the pregnancy, the darker the story becomes.

Initially, the focus is on the description of the pregnancy’s progress.  We get detailed accounts of the woman’s morning sickness and her visits to the psychiatrist.  The writer has little sympathy though, for her sister or her brother-in-law:

“My brother-in-law seems particularly pitiful to me, since he has no reason to feel sick, and I find myself getting angry over his little sighs and whimpers.  It occurs to me that I’d fall in love with a man who could put away a three-course French dinner even when he knew I was paralyzed by morning sickness.”
‘Pregnancy Diary’, p.73

She’s really not a very nice person…

Eventually, we see this passive distaste turn into more active anger.  After her sister recovers her appetite, the narrator begins to make jam on a daily basis – but with an ulterior motive.  It’s another dark twist to what could be a very straight-forward story, and the word which comes to mind is ‘bitter’…

*****
The final story, ‘Dormitory’, is a little different to the first two.  In this one, a married woman helps her cousin to find a room at her old university dormitory.  Although she enjoyed her time there, it’s a strange place – deserted and run-down:

“…and that place was my old college dormitory, a simple, three-story building of reinforced concrete.  The cloudy glass in the windows, the yellowed curtains, and the cracks in the walls all hinted at its advanced age, and though it was meant to house students, there was no sign of student life – no motorbikes, tennis rackets, sneakers, or anything of the kind.  It was, in short, the mere shell of a building.”
‘Dormitory’, p.110

It’s run by a man with his own distinguishing features, one prosthetic leg and no arms, and as the narrator comes to visit the dormitory more and more, matters spiral into the surreal.  The dormitory is almost empty, and it’s only a matter of time before we find out why.  Why are there so many bees?  What’s up with the tulips?  And what is that strange stain on the wall…

‘Dormitory’ is a little different from the first two stories as the protagonist is not bitter, but lost.  With her husband overseas, she feels detached from daily life and is unable to concentrate on anything.  She’s very reminiscent of the style of Haruki Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto (the dormitory especially reminded me of Dolphin Hotel in A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance).  Rather than following a dark character here, the darkness is provided by the eerie setting and the fear of the unknown…

*****
The Diving Pool is a great book, one I enjoyed immensely.  The publishers have chosen three superb stories, all with great writing and a dark undertone, and Snyder’s translation is excellent.  The narrative flows smoothly and never jars – it’s clear, elegant and simple.  I’m very happy I chose this for the readalong (and Ogawa as our first female J-Lit giant) – I wonder if everyone else agrees 😉

9 thoughts on “‘The Diving Pool’ by Yoko Ogawa (Review)

  1. Excellent stuff, Tony. I'm so glad you chose this book for the readalong. There's something quite dark and twisted running through these stories, yet there are brief moments of beauty too. It all adds up to a rather intriguing mix. All three stories are very thought-provoking. 'Dormitory' is my favourite, though – just the way it leaves more to the imagination.

    I can't recall if you've read Ogawa's collection of stories 'Revenge' but they're just as unsettling as those in 'The Diving Pool'.

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  2. So great that her work is coming out in English, there is a lot more of it available in French than in English, so she is sure to be popular. I picked this up in a charity shop a couple of years ago, intrigued by the cover and an author I hadn't heard of and soon after her novella The Housekeeper + The Professor came out in English, which is also a great read and would make a good film too. Last year I read another collection of her short stories Revenge, which is excellent and intriguing when one thinks of how many stories with that theme she manages to create and bundle into one collection, I think there are at least 10 stories in that one. She has a unique talent and very readable.

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  3. Looks like you picked a winner, judging by the reviews I read.

    Now when you say “reminiscent of Murakami”, what do you mean exactly? Never fancied reading him, but I may just be persuaded ….

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