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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ogawa Yoko

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Title: 琥珀のまたたき
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015
Length: 322 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Instantanés d'Ambre - France
Augenblicke in Bernstein - Deutschland
  • 琥珀のまたたき has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : simple-seeming but reaching very, very deep

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 12/4/2018 Eric Loret
Le Temps . 4/5/2018 Mireille Descombes

  From the Reviews:
  • "Avec Instantanés d’Ambre, Yôko Ogawa nous offre une fois encore un livre inépuisable et troublant. Un roman comme toujours traversé -- on pourrait presque dire tissé -- par des liens très forts entre les êtres mais qui échappent aux catégories classiques de l’attachement, de l’amour ou de l’amitié." - Mireille Descombes, Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: 琥珀のまたたき has not yet been translated into English; this review is based on Sabine Mangold's German translation, Augenblicke in Bernstein (2019); all quotes are based on that translation, in my translation from the German.]

       Most of the chapters in 琥珀のまたたき begin with a section in which a narrator describes her frequent interactions with Mr. Amber; they live in the same senior retirement home and have formed a friendship. The bulk of each chapter then looks back to Mr. Amber's formative years -- the unusual circumstances he grew up in. He was one of four children, all with the same parents but with the father never having married the mother and instead moved on to a new relationship and family when the children were still very young. In lieu of alimony he gave the mother of these children his run-down rural villa, and it is here the mother retreats to after the death of the youngest of the children.
       At the time, the other three children are ten -- a girl -- eight and almost five -- the two boys. The mother is convinced and terrified that her surviving children remain in danger from the same malignant force that took the youngest sister; she was licked by a dog before she became ill, and the mother is convinced it -- in the abstract, or in some sort of spirit form (the dog itself did not fare well, either ...) -- continues to pose a terrible threat. The mother upends their life when she brings them to the villa, cutting them off from the outside world, isolating them behind the property's walls. She even goes so far as to insist they change their names and forget their old ones, as if that might help fool the lurking danger. This is how they become Opal (オパール), Amber (琥珀), and Agate (瑪瑙). And as we know from the present-day mentions of 'Mr.Amber', he at least never regained his former identity.
       While the mother does go out to work, the children are not allowed outside the property and so, for example, don't attend school. Their father published encyclopedias, and the house is full of them; it is from these that the children get most of their learning: "They knew nothing else of the world except what they learned from these books". Of course, with such limited real-world experience, they are uncertain of the meaning of much that they come across. Still, they create a world of their own -- at one point, for example, fascinated by the Olympic Games, which they try to recreate, even as such basic concepts as competition are completely foreign to them.
       The mother works menial jobs and is away much of the time and so the children are very much on their own. It's been drilled into them that they must never venture out into the dangerous world outside -- and that no one must know that they are there. The mother's greatest fear is drawing attention to the existence of the children, but she is able to keep them quite well under wraps; the rare ringing of the bell at the gate is always a fearful moment but always successfully ignored.
       When the municipality sent round a circular insisting that local lawns had to be better attended to -- and offering homeowners help in doing so, in providing lawnmowers or financial support -- the mother worries that the authorities will come around and meddle at the villa; unsure about handling a lawnmower by herself she instead borrows a donkey for a week to graze and clear the land, which it does very effectively. The foreign creature is the first real living being to be part of the children's lives, and they are thrilled by its presence. The donkey comes annually, and it is one of the few things that gives the children a sense of time passing, and something to look forward to. (They don't even know when their birthdays are, much less celebrate them, for example.)
       Years later, a second being breaks through their isolation, a traveling salesman who suddenly appears on their doorstep -- familiar, from the previous owner, with a back door to the property that the kids hadn't even realized was there. They're fascinated by his wares, and even though they have no money to purchase anything, he continues to regularly visit when making his rounds -- behind their mother's back, as they give him strict instructions only to come when they can be sure she is at work.
       The children are infected by their mother's fear, taking it as gospel, even if the danger is largely undefinable. The spirit of their lost sister remains with them, too -- manifesting itself most prominently in Amber's visions after his left eye takes on an amber-like hue, making for a sensory sort of connection to the dead sister. He begins drawing in the encyclopedias they have -- capturing her there, and being able to convey that, at least in part, to his mother.
       琥珀のまたたき thus presents yet another of Ogawa's isolated and very off-beat tiny world-unto-itself communities, a reality that its inhabitants shape and interpret largely through their imagination and the limited other information they have. The mother sets down the rules, and does interact and contribute to the shaping of this world, especially in its broadest outlines -- and a bunker-mentality that is exacerbated each time she senses an outside threat -- but she is absent much of the time, at work, and so this is very much the children's world. The traveling salesman -- and the donkey -- are unusual outside visitors, but they are almost seamlessly integrated into the children's world-view, passive enough outside forces that they long only re-shape at the periphery rather than fundamentals.
       The story is, of course, also retrospective, a narrator beginning (almost) every chapter from decades after the events described here. But as she notes, Amber is unable and unwilling to say almost anything about the in-between time, from what happened after the children and their situation were discovered and the present-day: he gladly recounts for her the wide-ranging travels of the trio in their narrowly circumscribed world, but doesn't want to say a word about the voyage that took him out of this refuge:

He can only find the words to express what happened within those walls. Even though so many years have passed since he was rescued, he still behaves as though he had only really existed there.
       From early on, there is a sense that Amber did not see it as a rescue or escape; with the loss of this childhood kingdom and entry into the real world, his world seems to have collapsed. No longer was there just a single family member lost -- the youngest sister whom they could at least cling to via Amber's art -- but suddenly all of them were. Unsurprisingly, Amber continues to be drawn back to the sense of security and wholeness of his childhood; he continues to draw in encyclopedias -- seeking them out at used bookstores over the years to replenish his supply. (Fortunately, dad's encyclopedias are not much in demand, and he was able to fairly readily find cheap copies.)
       The story builds up to the discovery of the children, and what their mother had done with them. It's almost seven years they managed to stay hidden away -- with only Agate eventually unable to keep himself from sneaking out by that backdoor the traveling salesman revealed to them, and even though he is cautious, he is still young at the time and sets in motion the collapse of this sealed-island-world that their mother had so carefully secured; unsurprisingly she, in particular, can't handle it. Ogawa only quickly, almost incidentally, mentions what happens to the close-knit family when the authorities realize what has happened behind these walls, with the mother, Opal, and Agate's (three very different) fates presented in little more than a brushstroke -- each, in its own way, swallowed up in the aftermath, as is also the case with Amber.
       The mother is, interestingly, very much a background figure in the novel. She is the one who sets the stage, as it were, establishing the world that the children will then long inhabit, but much of what is described takes place in her absence. In part, this is a reflection of her character: the children discover that she was a model for one of their father's books, and that she was picked specifically because she was so inconspicuous, allowing the focus to be entirely on whatever tasks she was demonstrating. This trait carries over, her biggest wish being to not be noticed -- as, of course, is also the case with what she wants for the children: no one should even realize they exist. Only once does Ogawa really give her a scene entirely her own, separate from her concern for her children, describing how every few weeks she would get dressed up and go to the theater -- meaning, since she could not afford actual tickets to the theater, she would spend the time of the performance in the miserable park opposite the theater, and then mingle with the crowd after the audience streamed out of the building. It's a beautiful little vignette, and, along with the description of how she came to know the father of her children, the only one that really reveals a bit more about this otherwise clearly so troubled soul.
       Amber's life now, decades after, and the glimpses of the aftereffects of his unusual childhood (and its abrupt end) on him, are also well-presented. The senior home in which he lives is one for artists, and the novel culminates in one of the annual showings of the works which he was discovered for, late in life -- a Henry Darger-like story (except that at least Amber's art was discovered during his lifetime). Ogawa beautifully describes how Amber's work -- in the pages of the encyclopedia's -- is to be appreciated, the narrator waiting her turn as only five people at a time can partake in Amber's ritual presentation.
       琥珀のまたたき wends its unusual way in typical Ogawa-fashion, an odd world and its lingering small traces -- in the person of Amber, in the art he has carried with him all these years, and in the three stones representing the three siblings that are on careful display in his room -- slowly unfolding and presented to the reader. With its appropriate sense of often deep unease and its abrupt shifts, much of the novel's power comes from what Ogawa focuses on, and how: the small and seemingly incidental sitting oh so deep, the wrenching -- such as the so-called rescue of the children -- quickly passed over. It is a distinctly odd novel, and doesn't offer some of the satisfactions one might expect, given the story premise and arc, but it certainly makes an impression, and lingers on.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 March 2020

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琥珀のまたたき: Reviews: Other books by Ogawa Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ogawa Yoko (小川 洋子) was born in 1962.

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