‘The Hole’ by Hiroko Oyamada (Review)

Well, we’re almost at the end of August, but I did just manage to find time for one more #WITMonth (Women in Translation Month) post before the month comes to a close.  As was the case with my last few books, today’s choice is once again a story set close to Tokyo, a short piece looking at a new life in the country.  It features a slightly different take than those books, though, as we get to explore a life seen through a strange, if somewhat familiar, lens – and yes, there will be holes…

Hiroko Oyamada’s novella The Hole (translated by David Boyd) is a slightly bizarre piece centred on Asa, a young married woman whose husband’s job sees them relocated to the distant suburbs, almost the countryside.  In truth, she’s quite happy to be giving up her low-paid, exhausting job, and her co-worker makes no attempt to hide her envy:

“Wait, seriously?  You mean you’re going to be a housewife?  Her eyes opened even wider.  “Look at you!”  “Look at what?”  “You, Matsuura-san.  Living the dream.  You won’t have to work.  You’ll be free to look after the house, bake, do a little gardening… That’s the life.”
p.10 (New Directions, 2020)

It certainly sounds good, and Asa is looking forward to the prospect of getting away from her job and living rent-free in a house next-door to her in-laws.

And yet the change doesn’t quite work out as she’d expected.  With nothing much to do, and her husband taking their car to get to work, Asa finds herself bored every day, struggling to find ways to pass the time in a dull place where little happens.  Until, that is, it suddenly does, and she finds herself confronted by something unexpected.  It’s obviously a creature of some sort – but what exactly is it?

The Hole is an intriguing work, and a definite one-sitting read.  It combines elements of a traditional Japanese tale of a bored housewife and of an uncanny tale told to raise chills on a dark summer night.  The story is spread over a number of scenes during a long, hot summer, with Oyamada dumping her fairly ordinary protagonist out in the sticks and then watching what happens when Asa begins to unravel.

On one level, The Hole is merely a story of real life, showing us the tedium of a place where the loudest noises are often made by cicadas.  Finding herself trapped in a crushingly dull life, Asa comes to realise that even her husband isn’t there for her.  He’s off at work from dawn to midnight, and when he does spend some time at home, he’s more like a zombie than an attentive husband, unable to take his eyes, and fingers, off the screen of his smartphone.

However, on another level, Oyamada’s story is about the strange occurrences that break up the monotony.  The first real hints of this come when Asa walks to the local 7-Eleven to pay a bill for her mother-in-law, and is stopped in her tracks by a figure on the path:

At first, I thought the extreme heat was making me hallucinate, but the creature was really there.  It was obviously a mammal – but not one I’d ever seen before.  What I saw wasn’t a weasel, and it wasn’t a raccoon.  It had to be as large as a retriever, maybe bigger.  It had wide shoulders, slender and muscular thighs, but from the knees down, its legs were as thin as sticks.  The animal was covered in black fur and had a long tail and rounded ears.  Its ribs were showing, but its back was bulky, maybe with muscle or fat.  Slowly, it moved down the path ahead of me, barely casting a shadow, probably because the sun was right overhead. (p.30)

This is just the first of several encounters, each leading her into an unusual situation (one of which involves the hole of the title, one she literally stumbles into).  Gradually, we begin to think that Asa is being given a sign – but of what?  And what should she do about it?

The strange creature turns out to be just one of many aspects of her new life that aren’t quite right.  There’s an old man she meets in her new neighbourhood, one whose presence doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by anyone else, and her husband’s grandfather and his constant watering of the next-door garden.  Then there are the kids in the 7-Eleven who barely notice her when she walks past them.  It all adds up to a rather strange atmosphere, with the reader just waiting for the strands to come together.

It wouldn’t take a genius to spot obvious Haruki Murakami parallels here, and even if I’m often guilty of namedropping him in inappropriate places, it’s unavoidable here.  Most readers will recognise the everyday protagonist, the casual cooking descriptions and (of course) a rather feline protagonist that influences the main character’s fate.  If you want more proof, there’s even a well if you hang around long enough.

The story is also similar to Murakami’s writing in that while it looks like a strange tale of the supernatural, The Hole is really about a woman at a juncture.  As she wonders just what her place in life is, she’s suddenly assaulted by strange happenings that seem to act as metaphors, like the unusual creature:

“You mean everyone just ignores it?”  “Ignores what?”  “Well, um, the animal…”  “I guess this is why he needs a name.  Except, yeah, everyone’s always ignoring him anyway.  Who knows, maybe they never even noticed him.  People always fail to notice things.” (pp.66/7)

These unexpected catalysts make Asa realise that the life she took for granted is something very different to what she wants.

Short, but decidedly *not* sweet, The Hole is a story that starts off plainly enough, but develops nicely into an intriguing look at how our lives take shape without our realising.  However, what gives it a twist is the way it explores a woman’s side of the story, showing the dangers of conforming to the expected gender role.  As such, it’s a perfect choice for #WITMonth, and a book many readers will appreciate 🙂


5 thoughts on “‘The Hole’ by Hiroko Oyamada (Review)

  1. Ah, I love the sound of this one… there is something about that Japanese nostalgia for the suburbs or furusato life, but when they get there it doesn’t quite live up to expectations, right?


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