Hotel Iris, By Yoko Ogawa, trans. Stephen Snyder

A brave writer who's here to stay

Yoko Ogawa's most recent book to appear in English, The Housekeeper and the Professor, was a charming, touching portrait of an unlikely friendship.

In Hotel Iris she has retreated into darker territory, a mode closer to The Diving Pool, the collection of novellas that in 2008 was the Anglophone world's stunning introduction to the Japanese writer's work. By one reading, Hotel Iris is a love story – boy meets girl, relationship begins, girl keeps it secret from disapproving parents, all swelling to an explosive climax. Here, however, the girl is a 17-year-old innocent, the boy sixtysomething, and their relationship based on dominance and sado-masochistic violence. And yes, she loves him and he loves her.

The hotel is Mari's home, a run-down Japanese seaside establishment managed by her controlling mother, with a lot of help from Mari herself and less from the kleptomaniac maid. The Iris bursts to life in the opening scene with a noisy altercation between a distressed hooker and an older man. Mari finds the man's commanding voice such a thrill (she hears him say only "Shut up, whore") that he lingers in her mind, and when a fortnight later she sees him at a shop, she decides to follow him. They talk. He lives across the water on an almost-deserted island, translating Russian guidebooks and pamphlets for a living. One day she accompanies him home. And so the affair begins.

In crisp prose from Ogawa and translator Stephen Snyder, the story expands into a (necessarily ambivalent) study of psychological and sexual dependency, with Mari floating around the hotel as her mother does her hair and tells her she's beautiful, while longing to be reunited with her lover for another session of degradation and pain. Then into the picture, to complicate matters, comes the nameless translator's nameless nephew, who has no tongue, and whom Mari finds pretty interesting too...

It's brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected – when the shy, anxious, fastidious translator makes a scene at a smart restaurant – but also sometimes a longing that is touching and tender. What Hotel Iris lacks is a central character with the richness of Ogawa's earlier creations, so that much of the story seems to remain coolly at arm's length.

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