Published by Vintage on April 2009 (first published 1990)
Genres: Japanese literature
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Three novellas about love, motherhood, fertility, obsession, and how even the most innocent gestures contain a hairline crack of cruel intent.
This year for January in Japan one of the readalongs is Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool. The post gathering all reviews of the book is here. The Diving Pool is actually the first book I finished this year, far ahead of the readalong date (January 16th).
So, what did I think of the book? Frankly, even now I’m still not sure. The first book I read by Yoko Ogawa was The Housekeeper & The Professor, which is cute (and sad) if anything. This book, The Diving Pool, however is something different.
Let me start by saying I read the back of the book first. The blurbs describe the book as ‘haunting prose’, ‘to enter a dreamlike state tinged with a nightmare’ and ‘original, elegant, very disturbing… on the edge of the unspeakable’.
The book contains three ‘novellas’ (or short stories, at 50 pages each printed in a large font…). Let me skip a summary of the individual plot lines. This book is all about normal people. Normal people in comparatively normal situations. And this is where I start admiring Ogawa. Each of these stories gives you the chills. You either recognise yourself in the stories, or you start doubting yourself, or at the very least you see the world just a little differently by the time you’ve finished this book.
That said, don’t expect super exciting stories where a lot happens. You won’t find them because that’s not what this book is about.
Personally, I enjoyed the book. But it didn’t wow me. The blurbs gave me high expectations and in that sense I was let down a little. Nonetheless, the stories continue to fascinate me. It’s definitely worth giving it a try!
To answer Tony’s questions:
1) Which was your favourite story (and why)?
Probably Dormitory. A completely normal narrator, who procrastinates sending her husband abroad a reply or dealing with his requests. A college kid who never shows up after the initial part of the story. A dormitory manager with missing arms and a prosthetic leg. The mystery that never gets resolved, where did the other college student disappear to? And then the minor mystery that does get resolved, what is that spot on the ceiling? Wonderful and unexpected.
2) Bearing in mind that these stories were published individually in the original language, do you think the book worked well as a collection?
Surprisingly: yes. Although the stories at first glance don’t have much to do with one another, each story has narrators that do little things that seem off but are so very human. I’m thinking of Aya and the things she does to baby Rie in The Diving Pool, the narrator in Pregnancy Diaries who worries about her sister’s baby, and the narrator in Dormitory who doesn’t reply to her husband’s requests.
3) Did the slightly dark tone enhance your enjoyment of the stories, or would you have preferred a lighter approach?
Without the dark tone, I’m not sure this book would even exist. Nothing exciting happens in the stories, and with a lighter tone they would become plain boring and I’m not sure we could even ‘justify’ them ‘existing’.