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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Hole

Oyamada Hiroko

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To purchase The Hole

Title: The Hole
Author: Oyamada Hiroko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 110 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Hole - US
The Hole - UK
The Hole - Canada
  • Japanesew title: 穴
  • Translated by David Boyd
  • Awarded the Akutagawa Prize, 2013 (II)

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, atmospheric

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times A 26/9/2020 Iain Maloney
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/10/2020 Hilary Leichter

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Hole is concerned with the plight of women in Japan. In fact, you couldn't ask for a more concise, moving and subtly angry study of the pressures and expectations placed on women by Japanese society. (...) It takes a writer of great talent to mold the banality of the everyday into the stuff of art, and to build an entire world around a metaphor other writers might quickly deploy and cast aside, but Oyamada is in complete control of her talent." - Iain Maloney, The Japan Times

  • "No one is where she is supposed to be; characters are introduced and then seldom appear again. Other characters are never properly introduced at all, and ingratiate themselves into the plot. Still others might not even exist, reality collapsing and dimpling like the landscape. (...) Oyamada has great fun playing with the idea of elision, building a propulsive narrative of omission and isolation. And yet, here, the hole is not quite an absence but a palpable nonpresence. Like an echo, or a ghost, an indication of what has gone before and what's to come." - Hilary Leichter, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       The Hole is narrated by Asa. She is going on thirty when her husband, Muneaki, is transferred to new office, far enough from where they live that they decide to move. As it happens, his new office is (reasonably) close to where he grew up and his parents still live; conveniently, a house the parents own right next to theirs has just become vacant, and Muneaki's parents offer it to the couple, rent-free. Asa does give up her own job, but that doesn't seem like a huge sacrifice: she's only a "non-permanent employee" who doesn't get paid nearly what the permanent employees do.
       A co-worker looks at the bright side:

Living the dream. You won't have to work. You'll be free to look after the house, bake, do a little gardening ... That's the life.
       Asa has her doubts, but can't really make a case -- even to herself -- that they should make other choices. It's more convenient (for her husband's work), they save on rent .....
       The place they move to is relatively isolated. Muneaki needs the car, and everything is pretty far away, with a very limited bus service. Asa can get back to the big city when she wants -- it's only a train ride away -- but it's almost more of a hassle than it's worth; she rarely bothers.
       There's not much distraction at home either. If worried about living next to her in-laws, that turns out not to be as uncomfortably close as she might have feared. Mother-in-law Tomiko also works and is gone most of the day, and Asa barely ever sees her father-in-law, who keeps himself busy elsewhere. The only fixture is Grandpa, who putters around in the garden, watering it endlessly. It's a while before Asa even encounters a neighbor -- though there is one other surprise for her, in the form of someone living right nearby, where she has good reason to wonder why she wasn't made aware of his existence earlier; if she has willingly moved herself off the career- and active-life path, deferring to her husband, she still functions in a traditional role, as housewife, while this person really abandoned any pretense of going along with societal expectations and demands; "I guess that makes me what they call a hikikomori -- a shut in" (though he does actually venture out and about quite a bit).
       It's a big change for Asa, and while she dutifully accepts it, she doesn't take to her new situation:
I was pretty sure I'd get sick of my new routine within a week -- but it only took one day. Every day after that was as mind-numbing as the one before.
       There's a tiny 7-Eleven down by the river, and soon after their arrival she heads there on an errand. Along the way she ventures off the beaten path -- and falls into a hole. It's not deep or too dangerous, but:
It almost felt as though the hole was exactly my size -- a trap made just for me.
       She gets out easily enough, and is on her way, but the sensation of course lingers: her new life finds her essentially in that position, in a shallow, narrow hole, as though just made for her.
       The descriptions, of oppressive summer -- the heat (even when fall comes: "ever day still felt hotter than the last") and humidity --, the endless loud cries of cicadas, and the local children playing in the wild all contribute to the atmosphere of the book. Asa's husband is barely much of a presence -- and even when he is, tends to be on his phone -- and the few other people living nearby live, in their different ways, in their own largely closed-off orbits; it is almost impossible for Asa to connect in any meaningful way with them (not that she really tries). Asa, like her narrative, remains almost all interior.
       Oyamada captures Asa's feeling out of place, and her sense of feeling that she doesn't know what's out there -- wherever she ventures --, very well; the place and the people remain a mystery to her. She surely agrees when someone tells her:
It seems like most folks don't see what they don't want to see. The same goes for you. There must be plenty you don't see.
       The hole is no escape:
Who do you think you are ? Alice in Wonderland ? You thought you'd follow a white rabbit down a whole and find yourself at the start of some big adventure ? Is that what you thought would happen ?
       Asa does look for some sort of hold in this new world she finds herself in, and in the end chooses one -- even as it only promises the numbing routine of a largely pointless exercise. A creepy closing shot, of what she might be coming, makes for a nice conclusion to this small tale.
       The Hole is effectively atmospheric, and Asa a well-drawn figure, a woman at sea in a world where expectations and possibilities -- for her husband, for family -- leave her only with a limited role. She's free to do as she pleases, in a way -- and yet also constrained by a society that limits her in so many ways. It makes for a fine little story, with Oyamada particularly good at keeping the story unsettling, but, like many Akutagawa Prize-winning works (which tend to be of this length) is also a somewhat awkward in-between work, neither full-fledged novel nor simply a long short story -- and both material and message would seem to be better suited to one or the other.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 September 2020

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The Hole: Reviews: Other books by Oyamada Hiroko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Oyamada Hiroko (小山田浩子) was born in 1983.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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