The Diving Pool, by Yoko Ogawa, trans. Stephen Snyder

Everyday horror in suburban Tokyo

Reviewed,Victoria James
Friday 08 August 2008 00:00 BST

Take a 30-minute trip on one of Tokyo's commuter trains – a futsuu local or, if you're lucky, a kaisoku fast service – and you'll plunge into the world of The Diving Pool, a collection of three tales by prize-winning novelist Yoko Ogawa. These explorations of abnormal psychologies unfold against the most normal of settings: drab, suburban greater Tokyo. Written in her twenties, Ogawa's stories revolve around female narrators of a similar age (one is a schoolgirl). Her intuitive prose feels like an attempt at a distinctive feminine idiom.

The husband of the narrator of "Dormitory" sends her lists of tasks to complete before she joins him on his overseas posting. Items such as "renew your passport" baffle her, like "obscure philosophical terms". Masculine clarity has no place here. It is the irrational that comes naturally to Ogawa's women. The narrators of "The Diving Pool" and "Pregnancy Diary" commit atrocious deeds – tormenting a toddler, possibly poisoning a pregnant woman – as if by reflex, barely aware not only of the consequences, but almost of the act. Rarely have first-person narratives been so opaque. This may be one source of their power to disturb. Is it possible to be a monster, all unknowing?

By contrast, the setting is sketched with a light yet vivid touch. Ogawa's use of physical detail roots her evasive narratives. Alighting from one of those trains, the schoolgirl narrator of "The Diving Pool" walks down the shopping street – the shotengai, crammed with convenience stores – then passes "the park ... the company dormitory, and the deserted maternity clinic". Everything rings true, down to the abandoned clinic in a country with one of the world's lowest birth-rates.

The works chosen here are perhaps too similar in structure and conceit. But The Diving Pool is a welcome introduction to an author whose suggestive, unsettling storytelling speaks volumes by leaving things unsaid.

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