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Review: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

The Japanese writer's latest collection of short stories plays intricate structural games that belie the subtle terror of her creations

By Drew Toal

By Yoko Ogawa. Translated by Stephen Snyder. Picador, $14.

“What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” goes that line from William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Yoko Ogawa’s slim, newly translated collection brings Blake’s words to mind—and not just because one of its tales involves an actual Bengal jungle cat. These 11 disturbing stories, originally published in Japan in 1998, link together in surprising ways, creating more of a disjointed novella than an array of stand-alone yarns. If not exactly symmetrical, the dark pieces of this troubling whole frame something fearfully complementary.

One of the points around which the collection pivots is “Old Mrs. J,” which considers a batty old landlady who grows carrots in the shape of human hands. She’s a kook, but proves to be great material for her writer tenant. Both the anthropomorphic vegetables and the scribe herself make appearances elsewhere. “Afternoon at the Bakery” dabbles in metafiction; the title is also ascribed to another story written by someone who may or may not be the author from “Old Mrs. J.” “The Man Who Sold Braces” concerns the death of a slightly embarrassing uncle, the same lovable screwup who is an impresario proffering human agony in “Welcome to the Museum of Torture.”

Revenge might be better served without these linkages. Each of these strange,  unadorned stories stands well enough on its own, and the structural games belie the subtle terror of Ogawa’s creations. Once attuned to the game, the reader may find that searching for self-referential clues serves is a distraction from the delicate,  slow-burning eeriness that lingers long after the book is put down.

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