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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Hotel Iris

Ogawa Yoko

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To purchase Hotel Iris

Title: Hotel Iris
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 164 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Hotel Iris - US
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  • Japanese title: ホテル・アイリス
  • Translated by Stephen Snyder

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Our Assessment:

B : somewhat underdeveloped (like its narrator) -- and disturbingly unsettling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ D 13/5/2002 Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereits
The Independent . 28/6/2010 Daniel Hahn
The Independent . 25/3/2011 Emma Hagestadt
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/5/2010 Alison McCulloch
San Francisco Chronicle . 14/5/2010 Terry Hong
Die Zeit . 18/7/2002 Peter Urban-Halle

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nun ist das Problem mit dieser Erzählung, daß sie ausschließlich aus der Perspektive einer unerfahrenen und nicht sehr beobachtungsscharfen und wortgewandten jungen Frau geschildert wird. Sie reflektiert nicht und motiviert weder ihre Neigung noch das Ende der Geschichte. Ärgerlich sind dabei die vielen Unwahrscheinlichkeiten und merkwürdigen Zeitfolgen, die kitschigen Schilderungen von "wehrlosen, nach unten hängenden Brüstenä und der Versuch, Parallelen zu dem übersetzten russischen Roman zu suggerieren, einem ziemlich unerträglichen Melodram von einer jungen Frau, die sich in ihren Reitlehrer verliebte. Das alles klingt entschieden mehr nach der populären Takarazuka-Frauenrevue oder Kleinmädchen-Manga als nach Literatur." - Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereits, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "It's brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected -- when the shy, anxious, fastidious translator makes a scene at a smart restaurant -- but also sometimes a longing that is touching and tender. What Hotel Iris lacks is a central character with the richness of Ogawa's earlier creations, so that much of the story seems to remain coolly at arm's length." - Daniel Hahn, The Independent

  • "A feeling of airlessness smothers the book, and Ogawa's exact prose glitters as menacingly as the surrounding sea." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "Hotel Iris reads like a stretched-out version of one of Ogawa’s Diving Pool novellas, with a menace at least as disturbing but harder to take since there’s so much more of it." - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "What is most shocking about Hotel Iris is not the subject matter -- which proves prurient -- but that so much of Ogawa's quiet freshness seems to be missing. No one would argue that Ogawa crafts gorgeous, spare prose, but, oh this story ..." - Terry Hong, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Yoko Ogawa erzählt nackt, unbewegt, mit einer Kunstlosigkeit, deren Kunst verblüffend ist. Und je nackter die Sätze und innerlich regungsloser die Figuren, desto dramatischer die Wirkung." - Peter Urban-Halle, Die Zeit

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:

       Generally loath to discuss individual books in their relation to an author's oeuvre, a warning seems called for with regard to Hotel Iris: little of Ogawa's work has been translated into English, and the one book readers are likely to be familiar with is The Housekeeper and the Professor. Those turning to Hotel Iris looking for something similar may be in for a shock: the relationships here are much, much darker and rougher, and there's a raw brutality to the descriptions of sex (which was, of course, entirely absent from The Housekeeper and the Professor) that is hard not to find disturbing. In fact, Hotel Iris, with its seventeen-year-old narrator Mari, is more akin to the graphic young-women (written by young women, and about young women) fiction that was popular in Japan recently -- works such as Snakes and Earrings and Innocent World --, despite the fact that Ogawa was already a considerably more mature author when she wrote this (though only published in English in 2010, it came out in Japan in 1996).
       Mari's father is dead, and she lives and works with her mother in the family business, the Hotel Iris. Mari has dropped out of school, and her life revolves around the shabby hotel. Located at a seaside resort, it doesn't even offer much of what guests come looking for -- it's not by the beach, and barely any of the rooms even have anything resembling a desirable view. Still, business seems decent enough, and during the three month summer season it is, like every other place in the otherwise quiet town, very busy.
       The story begins with a prostitute storming out on one of the guests, making a big and loud scene. Mari witnesses it -- and is then quite taken by the man, who is already: "past middle age, on the verge of being old". Tellingly (as it turns out) Mari is particularly drawn to how he presents himself:

     It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order. It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word "whore" was somehow appealing.
       Mari's mother is a domineering and controlling sort, and Mari hasn't managed to escape much from under her thumb yet. She even still does Mari's hair every day, a torturous procedure.
       Despite what Mari sees (and imagines) in the hotel, she is not merely innocent but an almost blank slate:
I can't say I have much experience or even any real desires of my own, but just by shutting myself up behind the desk, I can imagine every scene being played out by the people spending the night at the Iris. Then I erase them one by one and find a quiet place to lie down and sleep.
       This idea of a (re)constructed reality remains dominant: Mari does not live life so much as play a part in a carefully scripted one -- even if, at times, she does, not know what the rules and lines are. She gets to know the man from the hotel room, who turns out to be a translator who lives on a nearby island. As a translator he, of course, also has to closely follow a script -- the original text -- that he merely adapts in another language.
       For the most part, as he says, he is not a "real" translator, instead translating "guide-books and commercial pamphlets" and the like from the Russian (i.e. things from which any emotion or emotional involvement is absent); only on the side (and without being commissioned to) is he translating a Russian novel (whose heroine is conveniently named Marie).
       Mari is hardly worldly: the first time she even just walks a short way with the translator she mentions:
     I suppose I was watching him so carefully because I never really walked next to anyone before. My father died when I was quite young, and my mother always walked ahead of me. I'd never had a boyfriend, or even girlfriends, to walk with in town. I was confused and a bit embarrassed to have another body next to mine.
       But there's something that draws her to the man -- and obviously something that draws him to her. They begin a relationship of sorts. Polite and attentive in his letters and on the mainland, the translator turns out to be quite a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality -- but aside from the scene with the prostitute Mari also knows that his wife died many years ago, and the rumor that he killed her, and so she has some inkling of what she might be getting herself into.
       When she does get herself into it, visiting the translator at his home, it still comes as a shock. The layers of complexity to Mari's emotions make for a very uncomfortable scene. No certainly isn't taken to mean No here, and teasingly Mari even describes everything in ambiguous terms: "I shook my head, not to refuse but to hide my trembling", for example, and her screams:
     "Let me go," I said. The words that came out of my mouth were the opposite of what I wanted, but I knew that resisting would make his orders even more forceful.
       Indeed, the translator pays little attention to her protests and goes about his studied business (no simple sex act here: the translator has specific likes and needs, involving great lengths of rope). And so she finds:
I felt as though I was being torn apart, split between fear of what he would do next and the desire to be shamed even more.
       It's not clear where her desire for humiliation comes from, but she positively revels in it (as does he), both here and later. A relationship based on this -- and yet also one that includes a warmer, more normal interaction when sex is not involved -- develops.
       This goes on for a while, but when the translator's speech-less nephew (he had a tumor on his tongue when he was a child, and so they removed the entire tongue) comes to visit things begin to come to a head. Eventually, it ends in catastrophe -- though not before Mari gets wonderfully (for her and him) shamefully abased yet again.
       There are a number of interesting aspects to the book, beginning with its contrast between words and expression and essentially language-less and purely sensual indulgence. Aside from Mari's own account, there is a lot of writing going on: the translator sends her letters all the time, while the nephew also communicates by writing (since he can't speak). Then there is, of course, the translator's job, the re-creation of meaning in another language (and the divide between technical translation and that which he truly wants to do, translating a love-story). Yet Mari also thrills in the moments when:
I just wanted him to say my name over and over. There was no need for other words, words that had meaning.
       Yet a novel requires words with meaning, and Ogawa struggles with her very young narrator, who lacks the words and understanding for closer analysis, of self and situations. (Such a naïve narrator can have its appeal, but there's just too much going on here for that to work here.) The sex, disturbing though it is, is actually quite well handled, but there's a disconnect between that and the characters' motivations. Perhaps understandably the young protagonist cannot into words what causes her (and him) to act out this way, perhaps admirably Ogawa shows instead of tells -- yet she doesn't show quite enough, even when she's told us what happened to the translator's wife. And at pivotal points Ogawa succumbs to taking the too-easy and direct way out, such as having Mari mention: "I sensed that things could never go back to the way they had been".
       Much of Hotel Iris is also symbol-laden -- a scarf, the Russian novel, along with much else -- all of which is a bit much for such a slender novel to bear.
       Hotel Iris moves along and comes together in an intriguing fashion, but ultimately feels underdeveloped, just like its protagonist. The physical is presented in graphic (and shocking) detail, but the psychological is not explored nearly enough. Mari does, perhaps, not have the capacity for coming to terms with what she has been through, and hence can merely relate it, but even there she has not related entirely enough.
       An unsettling, disturbing read that doesn't quite meet all its promise.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 December 2009

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Hotel Iris: 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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