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52 Books #21: The Diving Pool

May 29, 2011

I may be one of the only people on earth who feels delighted, rather than short-changed, to discover a book I’ve bought on impulse isn’t a novel at all but a set of novellas. Such is the case with The Diving Pool (Vintage), by feted Japanese author Yoko Ogawa, which proves to be three ambiguous stories, slim but not slight, and overwhelmingly delicious.

In the title story, the daughter of a family which operates an orphanage — “where I am the only child who is not an orphan, a fact that has disfigured my family” — develops a crush on one of the orphans, Jun. Unable to tell the boy of her feelings, she finds a disturbing way to express her perturbation, by torturing one of the other young orphans. In ‘Pregnancy Diary’, the narrator records her own feelings about her sister’s developing pregnancy, both girls’ ambiguous relationships with the baby’s father, and the ways she devises to influence the unborn child. And the final story, ‘Dormitory’ (a bland title which recalls some of those innocuous-sounding Japanese horror-movie titles: Ring, Audition), sees another female narrator returning to the college dormitory where she lived as a student to enrol her cousin there, and re-encountering the tetraplegic, unspeakably sinister Manager who oversees it.

These are stories which somewhat defy explication. In each, a relatively commonplace scenario — teenage crush, pregnancy — is gradually invaded by a creeping sense of unease. Obsession of one sort or another motivates two of the narrators, their strange psychologies disturbingly easy to empathise with, while the Manager of ‘Dormitory’ is an obsessive of a different order: a cripple, he fetishises the ‘perfect’ bodies of the students in the dormitory: “I’m not interested in doing anything to them,” he is quick to say, not very reassuringly; “to me it’s like looking at pictures in a medical dictionary.” Living almost alone in a dormitory block which has been deserted by its occupants after one of their number vanishes overnight, the Manager is the most overtly odd of the characters in this book, and this third story the most emphatically bizarre, with its unexplained disappearances (shades, I felt, of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solid Geometry’ in which someone can be ‘vanished’ by a hex-like mathematical equation) and preponderance of bees. The preceding two are subtler, content to rely on suggestion and implication rather than ‘Dormitory’s more demonstrative bizarrerie.

What links these three novellas, and helps ensure ‘Dormitory’ isn’t pitched at a hysterical level, is a delicious flatness of tone. The narrators may be devious, paranoid and selfish — and all three show these characteristics to varying degrees — but the poised, affectless prose means that their schemes unfold quite naturally, the reader nodding along with their take on the world until, pulled up short, realising he’s actually nodding along with a will to infanticide. Amoral rather than immoral, the narrators are dangerously seductive, and the tension that is engendered by the very rational descriptions of very irrational behaviour means that the reader goes along to an uncomfortable degree with their psychoses.

This policy of selecting books by authors I’ve not read before can be hit-and-miss, but once in a while it pays immense dividends. Discovering Yoko Ogawa’s work is one such: I’ll be buying up everything of hers I can find, as soon as possible. As to The Diving Pool, I was about to call this “the best book of novellas I’ve read this year” when I realised there are two pairs of words in that statement either of which you could delete and it would still be true.

Other reading in Week #21:

Bob Dent Budapest: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal)

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