the guardian Fri 01 August 2008
Yoko Ogawa's British debut is inexcusably belated. A prolific writer and the winner of every major literary award in Japan, Ogawa has appeared in the New Yorker and had a novel filmed, yet she has never previously been published in Britain. The Diving Pool is the first of her book-length works to be translated into English.
Ogawa is a conspicuously gifted writer, and this small showcase of three novellas must surely create a readership for her particular brand of unnerving, translucent restraint. Not a word is wasted, yet each resonates with a blend of poetry and tension.
In the mesmerising title novella, teenage Aya is secretly entranced by Jun, a long-term inhabitant of an orphanage Aya's religious parents run. Having shared an upbringing, Jun is effectively Aya's foster brother, and she is "the only child who is not an orphan, a fact that has disfigured my family". Desiring nothing more than to spend her time watching Jun practising his diving after school, Aya sits silently absorbing the "cold elegance" of his muscle formation as he twists through the air again and again: "I don't seem to have any reason to be here at all. I just sit and look at Jun's wet body."
Their joint home, called the Light House, lies bathed in "green darkness" behind a screen of looming ginkgo trees, a profusion of weeds and tiny insects. Aya's awareness of Jun changes as the two grow, and now when he returns home from diving practice, she watches his muscles "warm and soften like silk floss". Every moment with him is charged.
The seductive pull of cruelty intervenes. The grief of a toddler named Rie, the youngest child in the orphanage, excites Aya to the point where "I wanted to savour every one of Rie's tears, to run my tongue over the damp, festering, vulnerable places in her heart and open the wounds even wider". Aya traps the toddler in a large urn, and the child's paroxysms of distress empower as they excite her.
"The Diving Pool" is so emotionally authentic that an easy romantic resolution would come as a disappointment, and indeed Ogawa fulfils expectations: the dark side of the human psyche is revealed, the evil impulses that coexist with benevolence unravelled.
"Pregnancy Diary" won the Akutagawa prize in Japan, and, like the other two novellas here, features an emotionally displaced female narrator. The diary in question is kept by a woman about her sister's pregnancy, each stage scrutinised in detail with a disquieting distance. As with all Ogawa's stories, there is a tugging sense of something awry. The focus is not on the foetus but on food, on revulsion and then greed as the narrator makes her sister vats of grapefruit jam that is possibly toxic. It is hard to know whose delusions are dominant in this world of psychological ambiguity.
Women in Ogawa's work are essentially impassive, numbed, even dazed, tending to seek power through cruelty towards weaker specimens. Their disconcerting inertia in response to their restricted roles is counterpoised with eruptions and vicious twists, always described with a characteristic coolness of tone. The sense of alienation, of cultural universality, and the use of odd disappearances is reminiscent of Haruki Murakami.
In "Dormitory", a woman sits sewing a patchwork quilt in Tokyo while waiting for her husband to summon her to Sweden. Her young cousin then phones asking to stay in the hall of residence she herself lived in as a student. The manager of the college dormitory is a dying triple amputee obsessed with healthier students' body parts. As the cousin moves in and then seems to disappear, the narrator is drawn into a warped world in which the sickly buzzing of bees and garish tulip colours threaten to drown out normal human life as a backdrop to madness. Again, Ogawa appears to be obeying one genre's conventions - here the standard horror story - before veering away just in time. In this case, a sinister ending is forsaken for a more symbolic one.
As Kenzaburo Oe has observed, "Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology". Her exquisite, controlled prose avoids becoming brittle through her depth of emotional understanding. To read Ogawa is to enter a dreamlike state tinged with a nightmare, and her stories continue to haunt. She possesses an effortless, glassy, eerie brilliance. She should be discovered in Britain, and this book must surely begin the process.
· Joanna Briscoe's novel Sleep with Me is published by Bloomsbury