The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, is the only outstanding work of Yoko Ogawa’s which is currently available in English, which I had not yet read. Although a prolific author, very few of Ogawa’s works are available in English at present, and I can only hope that this is rectified in the near future. I find Ogawa’s fiction entirely beguiling; it is strange, chilling, surprising, and oh so memorable. This collection has been translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder.
The Guardian calls this tome ‘Profoundly unsettling, magnificently written’, and believes Ogawa to be ‘one of Japan’s greatest living writers.’ The Daily Telegraph writes that Ogawa ‘invests the most banal domestic situations with a chilling and malevolent sense of perversity, marking her out as a master of subtle psychological horror.’ This collection, promises its blurb, is ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant.’
The Diving Pool includes the titular story, as well as ‘Pregnancy Diary’ and ‘Dormitory’. They were originally written during 1990 and 1991, and made available in English for the first time in 2008. As with much of her other work, these stories err on the dark side of human nature.
In ‘The Diving Pool’, a ‘lonely teenage girl [named Aya] falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool’. Aya surveys him secretly, and then goes out of her way to scurry home, to the orphanage which her parents run, before he finishes his shower, so that he is unaware of her presence. Ogawa writes: ‘I spent a lot of time on the bleachers at the edge of the diving pool. I was here yesterday and the day before, and three months ago as well. I’m not thinking about anything or waiting for something; in fact, I don’t seem to have any reason to be here at all. I just sit and look at Jun’s wet body.’ She elaborates further: ‘Yet this is a special place, my personal watchtower. I alone can see him, and he comes straight to me.’ The unsettling sense one gets here manifests itself both in the building of the story, and within certain character descriptions. The narrator of the tale describes her mother, for instance, who is barely mentioned afterward, like so: ‘Her lips were like maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my fingers.’
‘Pregnancy Diary’ is written from the perspective of a young woman whose sister is pregnant. It is a ‘sinister tale of greed and repulsion’, and certainly crosses boundaries of what is acceptable. At the outset of the tale, the narrator, who appears rather self-important, wonders ‘how she broke the news [of the pregnancy] to her husband. I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around. In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all. They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker.’ When she goes on to describe the ultrasound photograph, Ogawa makes a fitting yet unusual comparison: ‘The night sky in the background was pure and black, so dark it made you dizzy if you stared at it too long. The rain drifted through the frame like a gentle mist, but right in the middle was a hollow area in the shape of a lima bean.’ The suspense has been built brilliantly in ‘Pregnancy Diary’, and heightens when the narrator takes such unadulterated pleasure in the pain which her sister undergoes as a result of her condition.
‘Dormitory’ deals with a woman visiting her old college rooms in Tokyo, which her cousin is hoping to move into. At first, she feels nostalgia about her experience there, but she soon begins to notice the darker elements which have crept in since she moved on. In the dormitory building, she ‘finds an isolated world shadowed by decay, haunted by absent students and the disturbing figure of the crippled caretaker.’ The woman is aware of a noise which she can sometimes hear, and which becomes more and more troubling to her as time goes on. The story begins: ‘I became aware of the sound quite recently, though I can’t say with certainty when it started. There is a place in my memory that is dim and obscure, and the sound seems to have been hiding just there. At some point I suddenly realized that I was hearing it… It was audible only at certain moments, and not necessarily when I wanted to hear it.’ She goes on to say: ‘To be honest, I’m not sure you could even call it a sound. It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb. But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound – its source, its tone, its timbre’ remained vague. The way in which she goes on to describe her old college building, and how she finds it just six years after graduating, is chilling: ‘Still, it wasn’t exactly a ruin… I could feel traces of life been in the decaying concrete, a warm, rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin.’
Despite these novellas being little more than long short stories, really, we learn an awful lot about each protagonist. Their narrative voices feel authentic, and the way in which Ogawa has been able to pen three stories, all with young women at their core, but has made them so different, shows what a masterful and versatile writer she is. The first two narrators have something quite sinister at their core, which are not apparent at first. The third narrator seemed more innocent, and therefore the darker elements of the story came almost as more of a shock. It feels throughout as though Ogawa wished to lull her readers into a false sense of security with these stories.
The imagery which Ogawa creates is at once startling and vivid. In ‘The Diving Pool’, for instance, the narrator begins by saying: ‘It’s always warm here. I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.’ There is certainly a dark edge to each of the tales, which is present at the outset and builds toward the end. Throughout, there is a focus on the minutiae of life, and how things are often far more sinister than they appear at first glance.
There are no satisfying conclusions here; rather, the stories end at points of heightened tension, buzzing with unanswered questions and a lack of resolution. Regardless, The Diving Pool makes for compelling and compulsive reading, and is, I think, the most unsettling of Ogawa’s books which I have read to date. There is an almost grotesque edge to each of them, and all are taut and masterfully crafted. Collected in The Diving Pool are the best kinds of stories: ones which promise to stay with you for a long time to come.