Top positive review
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Unreservedly recommended (except to my mother)
on 28 September 2014
Hotel Iris is not the best hotel. Located in a seaside resort that appeals mainly to the domestic market, good hotels are close to the beach or have great views. Sadly, Hotel Iris doesn't.
Mari lives at the hotel. Her mother owns it; her father, grandfather and grandmother are all dead. Mari's mother treats her as a skivvy, working longer hours and for fewer thanks than the actual staff maid. Mari is young, naïve and lonely. So when she runs into a translator who offers her companionship, she jumps at the chance even though she knows he has a dark side...
This short novel is carefully written to generate an atmosphere of seediness, decay and menace. We know that Mari is exposing herself to great risk, yet she embraces it as a viable alternative to her hopeless existence at the hotel. It's a difficult balance to strike, but Mari manages to avoid the role of helpless victim; she has a feistiness and determination to get what she wants. Insofar as she is a victim, she is a completely willing one.
One might safely assume that Yoko Ogawa's parents have long since passed because there are some scenes you wouldn't want your mother to read, especially if you had written them yourself. They are intimate and they are graphic. But they contrast with scenes of great tenderness and affection. Hotel Iris is not straightforward; it creates complex people that you never fully know. It is a novel as much about what is not said as what is written down on the page.
As well as the characterisation and story, Ogawa has a great ability to create images and scenes with very few words. The reader stands with Mari and the translator on the ferry, feeling the salt spray in the air; the reader knows the layout of the translator's house; sees the peeling paint in the hotel. The economy with words means the pace never slows, but neither does the novel feel rushed. And when it comes, the ending is ambiguous and most unsettling. It suits the novel perfectly.
Hotel Iris is a quirky, haunting addition to extensive canon of Japanese weirdness. Unreservedly recommended (except to my mother).