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by Yoko Ogawa

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
© Picador
Picador 2013

In "The Museum of Torture", one of the central stories in Yoko Ogawa's superb collection Revenge, a young beautician stumbles upon a meticulously curated exhibition of torturous devices. According to the museum's director, each piece on display was genuine and had been previously used to inflict emotional or physical pain on another person. Appropriately, the beautician is drawn to a pair of tweezers, unsure of what horrors they could have caused. The curator explains:

"It is conducted in a room lined with mirrors. Thus, no matter how hard the victim tries to avert his eyes, he is forced to watch himself becoming bald. The process is time-consuming, but it's important that the hairs be removed one at a time. If you rip out several at once, the effect is lost. The suffering comes from the slow but steady sense of loss - along with the tiny pain the victim experiences each time a hair is plucked. It's nothing at first, but as it's repeated a thousand times, ten thousand times, a hundred thousand times, it becomes the most exquisite agony imaginable."

Ogawa's unique prose is strikingly similar to how these tweezers function. The eleven stories in Revenge (all totaling to just over one hundred and fifty pages) are each reduced to only the most necessary details. Ogawa writes with such uncluttered precision it's almost as if she's plucked her stories clean of distraction. She doesn't write for depth; these aren't stories for interpreting. She works with bare bones instead of muscle, and readers will marvel at how effortlessly she gets these skeletons standing.

While each story can function on its own, one of the most exciting parts of Revenge is how Ogawa links each piece with a crossed-over detail. In one story, a narrator stuck in traffic discovers the jam is caused buy an overturned tomato truck: "at first I thought I must have driven into a field where an unfamiliar red flower was blooming. Or that the driver's blood was covering the whole road." In the next story, "Tomatoes and the Full Moon", a writer meets a strange old woman at a hotel who gives the chef a basket of fresh tomatoes. She later reveals she found them on the highway: "I couldn't resist picking up a few. I'm afraid the driver died, though: the cab was crushed, and I suppose he must've been, too."
Each story possesses a few links like the tomatoes: a sudden snowstorm, a murder at a hospital, a farm that grows mutated carrots. While obviously an intentional twist of the author, these links provide Revenge with a sort of connective tissue that's rarely seen in short story collections, almost as if these stories were fated to be compiled together by some grand, sinister force.

Unfortunately, these connections also expose an important weakness in Revenge. It's very easy to get bogged down trying to sort these threads into a cohesive timeline. Some of the stories span generations and require some untangling to realize the full sequence of events. It may be best to avoid going too deep into these connections, but approaching with any levity runs the risk of rendering Ogawa's technique as a gimmick. A careful line must be drawn here, and one that might deeply affect one's enjoyment of the book.

The "scariness" of Revenge must be addressed as well. The dismal, scarred cover might suggest that these "eleven dark tales" are prime examples of contemporary horror fiction, but Revenge should by no means be considered in the same context as stomach-turning, gory R-Rated horror. Ogawa is so much better than that-these stories are eerie and lasting, and although Ogawa often waits until the last sentence to pull the rug from her readers, Revenge does not run on cheap tricks or gross-outs. Invoking authors like Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe, Revenge is an exemplary reminder that traditional "fiction of the strange" is not yet a lost art.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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