I am all about revenge lately. Or perhaps it’s better to say I’m more into revenge than usual lately, as it’s something I definitely enjoy reading about and watching. (A personality test once told me that I value justice more than mercy. Yikes!) Anyway, I’m tearing through the first season of the television show Revenge (and simultaneously chuckling at and getting engrossed in its soap opera antics) and I recently finished up two Stephen King books in which revenge is doled out to rapists and torturers (Full Dark, No Stars and Misery, respectively), so when I saw Revenge by Yoko Ogawa pop up on Netgalley, I requested it immediately. I’ve enjoyed the few Japanese novels I’ve read in the past, and a little research on Ogawa revealed that she is a prolific and well-respected author, having won the Shirley Jackson Award in 2008 and numerous other Japanese honors.
There were lots of things I liked about Revenge. As it’s subtitled Eleven Dark Tales, I was expecting a collection of scary and unrelated stories. Ogawa, however, twists our expectations of the short story format and instead allows the vignettes to build off of one another; each character is linked to another in a previous story in some significant (or insignificant) way. I really enjoyed trying to puzzle out the relationships between characters before it was revealed. I think this format allowed Ogawa to focus on the meat of each story, and to create her own closed, realistic (but slightly off) world populated by her characters. For those readers who don’t normally enjoy short stories, Revenge might be a good way to both challenge their expectations and expand their horizons!
I also found it refreshing that many (most, really) of the revenge-takers were women. I’m a sucker for an avenging lady, whether she be justified or misguided, sane or delusional. Luckily, Revenge had all of these. Ogawa plays with the stereotype of the meek Japanese woman by realizing that it makes a great cover for a murderer.
Seeing actual murder on the page, though, was rarer than you might think. Much of the actual horror takes place off-page, where our imaginations are allowed to run free. There were gruesome acts, to be fair–lots of chopping–but really only one or two reveals in-story. I might just be desensitized, but I didn’t find the brand of horror in this book overwhelmingly scary. (Stephen King binge, remember!) It was a quiet, understated sort of darkness–the creepy landlady, the obsessed lover–rather than the over-the-top evil of the paranormal or the serial killer. It’s disturbing, rather than disgusting.
Despite that qualm, the readability level of Revenge was high. I read it over the course of two days, and could have finished it in one if I had allowed myself! Each story is bite-sized, and the text is crisp and clear. Although you are inside each character’s head, their voices and outlooks tended to be controlled and cool. (As someone who lets her emotions get the better of her most of the time, I enjoyed this!) The style tended toward the formal, the slightly-distant, and the detailed.
One issue I had with that style, though, was that it was the same for each character. I’m not sure if it was the translation, but I had a difficult time distinguishing between narrative voices. Each chapter’s POV–ostensibly a different person–sounded exactly alike. I couldn’t guess as to characters’ ages or genders before other characters within the story addressed them. On the one hand, it helped to heighten the tension and extend the sort-of “gotcha” moment when the reader finally figures out how each character is connected to the previous characters, but on the other, it didn’t seem realistic that so many disparate people would have the same tone, with no grammatical quirks, or differing reactions, or regional accents.
If you’re a fan of slow, atmospheric J-horror movies, I imagine you would like Revenge. Don’t expect over-the-top gore, but be prepared for some eerie characters and images that just might haunt you even after you close the book.
Revenge will be released on January 29, 2013. I received a copy free for review through Netgalley.
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