Hotel Iris is almost certain to surprise readers who know Yoko Ogawa only through The Housekeeper and the Professor, the first of her novels to be translated into English. Readers of The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas published earlier, have had more of a hint of her dark side. But while this latest translation may not be as eerie as “Dormitory,” and the family dynamics not as bizarre as in “Pregnancy Diary,” Hotel Iris is shot through with darkness—this time mostly psychosexual.
A hotel is no place for a little girl to grow up, with its comings and goings and constant stream of strangers. But Mari watches the front desk from a young age, even overnight when illicit noises waft down from the upstairs rooms. Male guests bring home prostitutes; tasteless couples make scenes; “obscene” panties are found clogging the toilets. By the time she’s seventeen, Mari has lost her father and grandfather and runs the hotel with her mother, who is obsessed with brushing Mari’s hair to perfection every day. She has made Mari drop out of school to work at the hotel full-time, and, though listless and without her own interests, Mari has no desire to follow her mother’s every command.
One night, when a hooker makes a scene in the hallway, Mari overhears the middle-aged john order her to “Shut up, whore.” This time the scene in the hotel amounts to more than just the usual annoyance.
The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel. It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger. Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn.
It certainly hypnotizes Mari, who proceeds to follow the mystery man around town the next time she sees him. The two lonely souls begin a strange and tentative friendship that shows its sinister side the first time the old man, an unnamed translator, takes Mari home. She has found the voice she does want to command her and becomes desperate for the shame and humiliation he can inflict on her when they’re alone in his island cottage.
The novel reaffirmed everything I liked about both books above. Ogawa’s prose, at least in Stephen Snyder’s translation, is unassuming and placid but broken by ripples of deeper emotion. Characters on the margins of society come together in strange and unexpected ways, finding something almost like happiness, but tinged with darkness. And there is the unmistakable but ineffable air of “contemporary Japanese literature” about the whole thing. I also found Mari an interesting protagonist; her journey follows the familiar contours of a coming-of-age tale, but along an unusual and even shocking path. Hotel Iris may narrow Ogawa’s English readership a bit, but it’s left me ready for more.