Ideal ve­hi­cle for an eerie blend of am­bi­gu­ity and in­ten­sity

Kevin Ra­bal­ais

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE novella is to lit­er­a­ture what mid­dledis­tance run­ning is to track and field. Some­where be­tween long and short, its in­ten­sity is de­mand­ing on reader and writer.

Richard Ford prefers the term long story. In his in­tro­duc­tion to The Granta Book of the Amer­i­can Long Story , he calls the species ‘‘ a vir­tu­ous form, even fiction’s most nat­u­ral one’’. This, Ford be­lieves, is be­cause the novella is free from the sever­i­ties of the short story or the novel. Its pri­mary re­stric­tion is length.

While a novella may not in­clude the range and sweep of a novel, we ex­pect its writer to re­veal deeper im­pli­ca­tions than those that come to us through short sto­ries. But wher­ever the de­bate about form takes us, we ex­pect all good lit­er­a­ture — whether it is po­etry, es­say or epic novel — to burn a hard flame. There’s no rea­son that read­ers shouldn’t im­pose the same de­mands on the sprinter ( lyric poet) as those we im­pose on the run­ner of marathons ( epic nov­el­ist).

Yoko Ogawa, win­ner of the Aku­ta­gawa Award and now avail­able in English, places strin­gent de­mands on her­self in the three novel­las in The Div­ing Pool . Each piece dif­fers from the next in shape and tone. Read to­gether, they re­veal a con­sum­mate writer who has placed for­mal re­stric­tions on her­self that al­low her to dis­play the in­ten­sity of th­ese dark, mys­te­ri­ous sub­jects.

The first, epony­mous novella con­cerns a group of or­phans, fos­ter sib­lings, who live in the Light House. The nar­ra­tor, how­ever, is not an or­phan but the only child of the Light House par­ents, who are also church lead­ers.

This ge­netic fact, Aya says, ‘‘ has dis­fig­ured my fam­ily. If I could have one of the tragic his­to­ries so com­mon at the Light House — an al­co­holic mother, a homi­ci­dal fa­ther, par­ents lost to death or aban­don­ment, any­thing at all — then I could have been a proper or­phan.’’

Aya’s sense of dis­fig­ure­ment, or aban­don­ment, leads to a voyeuris­tic fas­ci­na­tion with her fos­ter brother Jun. Each day af­ter school, she watches Jun prac­tise at the div­ing pool. ‘‘ The line of mus­cle from his an­kle to his thigh has the cold el­e­gance of a bronze statue,’’ Ogawa writes of Aya’s clan­des­tine ob­ser­va­tion. Aya and Jun’s re­la­tion­ship at home grows in­creas­ingly charged as she seeks af­fir­ma­tion of her long­ing.

Preg­nancy Diary comes in the form of a girl’s en­tries about the progress of her older sis­ter’s preg­nancy. The girls’ par­ents have died, and Ogawa deftly re­veals the emo­tional com­plex­i­ties and skewed re­al­ity that lie in the wake of that wreck­age. The tone here, eerie as in the two other novel­las, high­lights the am­bi­gu­i­ties of the sis­ters’ re­la­tion­ship. Th­ese en­tries have a shadow- like ef­fect that forces the reader to work to un­cover the sis­ters’ mul­ti­ple lev­els of re­al­ity.

The fi­nal novella, Dor­mi­tory , is a cross be­tween the work of Haruki Mu­rakami and Stephen King. It be­gins when the nar­ra­tor, a young wife, be­gins to hear some­thing that draws her into the past. ‘‘ To be hon­est,’’ she says, ‘‘ I’m not even sure you could even call it a sound. It might be more ac­cu­rate to say it was a quak­ing, a cur­rent, even a throb. But no mat­ter how I strained to hear it, ev­ery­thing about the sound — its source, its tone, its tim­bre — re­mained vague.’’

The sound’s source be­comes clear af­ter the wo­man’s cousin calls with a favour. He’s mov­ing to Tokyo and needs a place to live. The wo­man refers him to a dor­mi­tory run by a triple am­putee, where she once lived. Writ­ing of the bizarre dor­mi­tory and the mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance of a pre­vi­ous boarder, Dor­mi­tory de­serves to be placed along­side the best of Mu­rakami.

While Ogawa em­ploys a first- per­son, fe­male nar­ra­tor for each novella, th­ese voices rise to lev­els of in­di­vid­u­al­ism that re­main sur­pris­ing even for the reader who segues be­tween ran­dom para­graphs. But while her nar­ra­tors are from var­i­ous ages and back­grounds, Ogawa doesn’t rely on their voices to drive th­ese sto­ries. One of the great virtues of her work, rather, is its com­bi­na­tion of the con­tin­ued mys­ter­ies and in­ten­sity that the form of the novella im­poses. There’s noth­ing gim­micky or flashy about Ogawa’s prose, only a voice of cool author­ity. Kevin Ra­bal­ais is the au­thor of the novel The Land­scape of De­sire ( Scribe).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.