23. ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa

Sometimes you just want to slip back into the familiar embrace of a writer you already know and love. Sometimes that embrace is dark, uncomfortable and a little scary. Still, it’s exactly how you remembered it.

yoko ogawa hotel iris

Yoko Ogawa is the queen of subtly disturbing fiction. Using sparse language and short chapters, she can instantly suck you in and set you on edge, and that’s exactly what she does in Hotel Iris. This is the first novel I’ve read of Ogawa’s (I’ve also read her short story collections Revenge and The Diving Pool), and I think she’s just as capable of maintaining her signature suspenseful tone over the course of a novel (albeit a short one) as she is in the short story form. Having said that, I do think some of her short stories are slightly more capable of delivering that real gut-punch of terror, but the longer form isn’t a total departure for her: all the stories in Revenge are subtly linked together so you get the sense of a wider, more complex world.

Hotel Iris is about Mari, a teenage girl living and working in her mother’s tumbledown hotel on the Japanese coast. One day an older man comes to stay at the hotel with a prostitute, who creates a scene by shouting at the man that he’s disgusting and perverted, before storming out. When Mari runs into the man later, she becomes drawn to him first for his commanding tone of voice, and the two end up having a secret ‘love’ affair under the nose of Mari’s busybody mother.

The sexual relationship at the heart of this book is complex and confusing. Mari seems at once to be forced into it and she also seeks it out; she says several times that it is only through pain – and, more importantly, humiliation – that she is able to get pleasure: “Only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure.” The older man, known only as ‘the translator’, seems to have two personalities: in public he comes across as timid and gentlemanly, and he takes Mari on dates and writes her love letters; in private, when it is just the two of them alone, he becomes commanding, brittle and even violent. As for Mari, a part of her always seems to be distanced from what is happening to her – she is able to register pain and ignore it – so that even when she tells the reader explicitly what she wants, we don’t quite know whether to believe her. Is she a young woman choosing the sexual experiences she wants, however shocking, or is she an inexperienced girl who is out of her depth? In the end, perhaps the more pertinent question is: do we, as outsiders, have the right to decide?

There’s an interesting play on the idea of beauty vs. ugliness in this book. Mari’s mother is domineering, and she expresses this through her treatment of Mari’s hair, which she brushes every day with oil and ties back tightly. For the mother, Mari’s hair is the epitome of her beauty, and by obsessing over it she is insisting on Mari being pretty. For Mari, however, she feels as though she has been “hurt … in a way that will never heal.” No surprise, then, that she lets the translator mess up her perfectly lacquered hair, and seems to revel in the ‘ugliness’ that comes from it.

There’s a compelling thread of mystery running throughout this novel too, centring around the question of what happened to the narrator’s, now deceased, wife. I think Ogawa does a fantastic job of racking up the tension around this question, and the ultimate ‘big reveal’ is unexpected and – like so much of Ogawa’s writing – will continue to unsettle you the more you think about it.

I think this is another masterful book from one of my all-time favourite writers. Although I found it slightly less impactful overall than her short stories, it still has Ogawa’s familiar nightmarish tone, which makes you slow your reading while it creeps into your brain and takes root.

“In my heart, I told her that her pretty little Mari had become the ugliest person in the whole world.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

What do you think?

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