Thursday, May 13, 2010

'Hotel Iris'

by Yoko Ogawa
Original title: ホテル・アイリス (hoteru airisu)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Fiction, published in Japan, 1996; English translation, 2010
Picador, trade pb, 164 p.
From the front flap:
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.

Hotel Iris is a stirring novel about the sometimes violent ways in which we express intimacy and about the untranslatable essence of love.
Since reading The Housekeeper and the Professor earlier this year, I’d been eager to read something else by Yoko Ogawa, so I was thrilled when Picador contacted me about possibly reviewing Ogawa’s latest book to appear in English, Hotel Iris. Like The Housekeeper and the Professor, this is a character-driven story about the unusual relationship between an older man and a younger woman. Again like The Housekeeper and the Professor, it is also written in sparse, beautiful, vivid prose, in a very smooth translation. But that is where the similarities end.

Hotel Iris has a darker tone and contains some scenes that are rather disturbing. I was going to say despite, but it is actually because of, the uncomfortable subject matter though that this becomes a thoughtful study of human behaviour. A self-absorbed, domineering mother, a young girl longing for her lost father, searching for some kind of connection, and a man with a hidden, shall we say, appetite. It’s a story of love, loneliness, obsession, desire, violence, and submission. Yet there is no clear victim, and we never really understand why Mari is so drawn to the translator. I don’t think we are meant to though, or that Mari herself could explain her actions. It’s this complexity of human emotion that makes for a fascinating story, one that Ogawa has told quite elegantly.
He had undressed me with great skill, his movements no less elegant for all their violence. Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became – like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl.
This is not a happy story, and some people will no doubt find it offensive. Simply put, it’s not a book for everyone, but I found it a very compelling read, and I definitely look forward to reading more by Yoko Ogawa.

My Rating: 4/5

For more information and to read an excerpt from the book, visit Picador's Hotel Iris page.

Thank you to Danielle at Picador for the opportunity to read this book.

Buy Hotel Iris at: |

Also reviewed by:
The Longest Chapter
Melody's Reading Corner
Three Percent
If I've missed yours, let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print:  This book was received free of charge from the publisher for review purposes.  
Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.


  1. I have read Ogawa's Diving Pool and knew what disturbing writing she is capable of. This sounds like something I would mull over: To read or not to read.

  2. I am *really* wanting to read this! I don't shy away from dark subject matter; I do love when a writer's work contrasts so jarringly from what they have written before (is it possible that there is a book gentler than The Housekeeper and the Professor?!)

  3. I agree this book is not for everyone, but I like Ogawa's writing style and I hope she will have a new book out soon.

  4. This goes into my never ending list. My foray into Japanese authors has just begun so this is a new one for me.

  5. I liked how like Housekeeper and the Professor was, so I was hoping this was similar. But I think I may pass on this. Have you read any of Ogawa's short stories? That may be the direction I'll go in.

  6. I've yet to read any Ogawa, but I think it's interesting that this sounds so different from The Housekeeper and the Professor. The darkness and potential offensiveness definitely don't put me off, so I'll pick it up sometime.

  7. Exqusite review :) Ive decided to read this book since I've read The Diving Pool and I loved it. If ever it turns out to be too offensive for me, I guess I'll just not post about it.

    Btw, Tanabata, I plan to read the copy of Paprika you gave me this coming JLC4. Thanks again for thr book, I'm sure I'll enjoy it!

  8. Wonderful review. I am intrigued by this. Yes, it sounds very dark but so different . I like different.


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