Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and Stephen Snyder (translator)

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Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and Stephen Snyder (translator)

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A dazzling and audacious collection of short stories, made much more clever and if anything more disturbing by their all being linked.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099553939

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A woman waits for a long time at a village bakery, her mind only on the strawberry shortcakes she wants to buy, and the strange reasons that make the purchase so important to her. A boy is invited by a girl at school to a posh French restaurant – with strawberry shortcakes on the menu – in order for him to provide moral support as she meets her estranged father for the first time. Nearby, a woman enjoys an unusual relationship with her elderly landlady, who keeps finding unusually-shaped carrots in her vegetable garden. A man reflects on an unusual relationship with a writer who for a couple of years at least was a step-mum to him, even as she went dotty in talking to herself. Unusual relationships, vegetables, motives – and strawberry shortcakes – are prevalent in this fascinating look at a sunlit yet dark world, which makes for a superlatively clever read.

This is a book of short stories inasmuch as some of them can – and indeed have – been isolated and presented as single pieces in anthologies, and I can see that happening more in future, given the quality on display. But they all have the kernel of another, unifying story within – my summary only reflects the first four stories (out of eleven) yet I haven't mentioned half the links: certainly there's not only the patisserie joining the first to the second. This whole thing is the core of the book – part of the moral substance it presents of the world, and provides for a further edge. At times one meets so many new characters – a whole train carriage-full at one point – that one might spend a little too much mental energy predicting the future. But so dazzlingly inventive and so unexpected many of the contents prove to be, one can only fail to second-guess the writer.

Another thing that surprises is the universality of these stories. The first, if you take away just one tiny detail – someone bowing to another in Japanese fashion – could have been set in Tuscany as opposed to – well, wherever. The girl meeting her father comes from any school and goes to any place, with no specifics. The whole pattern of the book takes us into the past as well, as you see the connections build and build, meaning none of the stories (bar a very small few) feel in any way either too similar or superfluous.

But they are alike to the others with those clever connections and links, and I realise I'm probably labouring the point a whole lot more than our author does, but they show just how superbly this book has been constructed. When one suddenly finds oneself back in that Italianate square it's just one more small detail, yet a huge part of the book, showing us how minutely everything has been thought through. Here is a welter of ideas, all pointing out to us in their individual ways that the world around us is a dark and twisted one. So a maker of bags can have a unique customer, and a museum of torture can have a guide who sounds just a little too knowledgeable, and perhaps a little too inspirational… We clearly leave the current world for fable and fairy-tale a bit here and a touch there, but it's not a problem whatsoever.

The final thing to be said is that these stories have lingered since the late 1990s, and were only translated into English in 2013. Enough about a complex, darkly conceived world – what kind of world is it where books such as this are locked out of audiences due to lack of translation? This is the cleverest book of utterly diverse, yet linked, tales imaginable. I was thinking of marking it down – only slightly, mind – due to a couple being more of a stepping-stone than a firm riverbank of a story. But the sheer bravura activity of Ms Ogawa in putting this cycle together just has to be lauded with the highest rating possible – simply because this is one of those books where, whatever your expectations, this exceeds them and constantly surprises. So good this is, in fact, that I am now revising down a lot of my thoughts of past short story collections, as this raises the bar so high with its attractive and understated cleverness.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Oh dear – this is the bit where I suggest further reading. Er… add the dark variety of Something Like Happy by John Burnside to the linked cleverness of Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andrei Makine and multiply by the modern fairy tale of the best of The Rental Heart and other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan and you get close. To some extent, a lot of further reading after this book is just spurious. You might also enjoy He Runs the Moon by Wendy Brandmark.

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Buy Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and Stephen Snyder (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and Stephen Snyder (translator) at


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