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Book Review: Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa (3/5)

6 Sep

I read my first Ogawa book in 2014 and a year later decided I wanted to read another. I enjoyed the shorter format and the way Ogawa wrote. Little did I know the one I picked would be harder to find than I thought. I ended up doing an Interlibrary Loan to get this title. Luckily, it was shorter and I was able to read it quickly and return it before I had to renew. It only took me seven years to get to it.

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Cover image via Amazon

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

Other books by Ogawa reviewed on this blog:

The Housekeeper and the Professor (and Book Club Reflection)

Summary from Amazon:

In a crumbling seaside hotel on the coast of Japan, quiet seventeen-year-old Mari works the front desk as her mother tends to the off-season customers. When one night they are forced to expel a middle-aged man and a prostitute from their room, Mari finds herself drawn to the man’s voice, in what will become the first gesture of a single long seduction. In spite of her provincial surroundings, and her cool but controlling mother, Mari is a sophisticated observer of human desire, and she sees in this man something she has long been looking for.

The man is a proud if threadbare translator living on an island off the coast. A widower, there are whispers around town that he may have murdered his wife. Mari begins to visit him on his island, and he soon initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure, a place in which she finds herself more at ease even than the translator. As Mari’s mother begins to close in on the affair, Mari’s sense of what is suitable and what is desirable are recklessly engaged.

I don’t think I was ready for how sexual this book would be. That would be a huge trigger warning for readers. I thought the seduction would be gentler for some reason so I was a bit shocked at the ways the two were intimate and also the detail about it. Mari is very much an observer so when her role in the story switches to a very active part, I was taken back at first. I think I was surprised more than anything. I was more interested in her relationship with her mother and the maid than the details of their intimacy and I was a little turned off at the switch.

Mari and the translator are very different from myself and the relationships I’ve been in so it’s hard for me to say how accurate they are. I did understand the relationship Mari had with her mother more. Mari is on the cusp of adulthood and wants to be her own person in some ways, but understands she still lives with her mother and is under her control for a little whiles longer. She is passive to preserve the peace but really wants to strike out on her own. I think most teenagers can relate to that.

The nephew was a fun character. Most of the characters weren’t sympathetic or likeable so he might be my favorite by default. His relationship with the translator changed what Mari thought of her lover and it helped humanize him. I loved the unique descriptions of how he would communicate and how in the end, that was how they got caught. It seemed appropriate that he was an artist and it was really easy to picture him painting on the rocks. I was only sad he never returned.

Besides Mari’s relationship with her mother, it was hard for me to relate to the characters in this book. I think that’s why it didn’t resonate with me very well. The feelings the translator and Mari had for each other were very foreign to me, and I don’t think it was cultural differences. It was just very different from my romantic relationships. Mari felt very closed off emotionally and it was hard to relate to her or get into her head. I think it staunched my enjoyment of her character and the book overall.

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Yoko Ogawa Image via Numero Cinq Magazine

I enjoyed the scenes with the nephew toward the end. Having another person come between Mari and the translator shone a light on their relationship that changed how I viewed it as a reader and I think how the two of them viewed it as participants. They had to see each other in a different light. Mari saw the translator as part of a family and as loving and caring in a way that was different from how he treated her. He was forced to see her youth, realizing that she was younger than his nephew seemed to change things for him.

The ending was a bit upsetting and rather abrupt. I’m going to spoil it here so please skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid that. I couldn’t tell if the translator’s anger was real or an act. Did he realize what Mari and his nephew had done together? If so, was he actually angry about it and punishing her or was it all part of their sexual relationship? It seemed really unclear to me and the author didn’t explain it well. His sudden death was both understandable based on their situation and also very unresolved and upsetting as a reader. It felt like Mari betrayed him by not coming to his defense about their relationship. It almost seemed too clean of an ending to explain the damage to her hair and the photos with a clear circle back to a conversation they’d had before about dead bodies. Overall, it was fitting but really rubbed me the wrong way.

The translator is a very interesting character. He’s reclusive and because of that, seen as an outsider and ‘othered’ by his community. That he would chose to live alone, that he works a solitary job make him an easy target for ridicule and judgement. Ultimately, this is hugely to his disadvantage as he’s rumored to be a criminal which hangs over him. Rumors and gossip can ruin lives and we see that plainly with the translator.

Writer’s Takeaway: I appreciate a book that’s concise and short. Ogawa’s ability to get a complete story into a short novel is commendable. She has drawn some wonderful characters in the translator, the maid, Mari’s mother, and the nephew. Though I wished there was more of Mari, I did enjoy her as an observer whose eyes I could see through. Ogawa didn’t spend time with descriptions that weren’t pertinent to the plot and I appreciated that. I liked being able to imagine most things without being told what they looked like.

Overall, not a book I greatly enjoyed but one I still read quickly. Three out of Five Stars

Until next time, write on.

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