Hotel Iris, by Yoko Ogawa

3 stars3/5

Hotel Iris both fascinated me, and made me feel a little bit sick. I am not usually put off by books with disturbing themes, rather the opposite in fact – I’m a fan of authors with a dark edge – Natsuo Kirino, Brett Easton Ellis, Daphne DuMaurier to name a few. But something about Hotel Iris really unsettled me and after mulling it over for some time I think I’ve put my finger on it. Let me elaborate…

Hotel Iris Yoko Ogawa

Vintage, 2011 edition, 176 pages - personal library

Yoko Ogawa introduces us to a young girl named Mari. She is seventeen, but her distant feelings towards her mother feel almost as if she is a much younger teenager – somewhat sullen. Her mother’s whole life is bound up in a rather depressing seaside hotel, which is set off too far from the beach to really qualify for the title and attracts an unusual mixture of customers. One night a commotion is made and a prostitute hurtles out of one of the bedrooms, with her underwear flying into the hallway after her. For some reason, Mari has an intense feeling about the voice of the man within the room. When she spots him out shopping and decides to follow him, Mari finds herself drawn into an intense relationship with the mysterious man, who turns out to be a translator and she becomes a submissive sexual partner and he something of a monster albeit with a refined veneer.

Despite Mari being the narrator I felt that I never really got under her skin. There is pain and sexual violence in Hotel Iris and Mari’s descriptions of sensation are vivid – textures, sounds, visual images of beauty – but she never seems to voice an opinion. But she can’t be described as passive because she actively goes looking for the translator. There is frequent reference to how her mother does her hair up in a painfully tight ponytail, meticulously combed and oiled smooth, but instead of looking for gentleness she seeks further constriction.

Even as I write my review, I keep on thinking that Hotel Iris is a very clever book. It doesn’t try to explain motives in an obvious way; the characters’ actions reveal them. The writing style is quite beautiful – Ogawa uses words sparingly managing to create a feeling of intensity and distance at the same time. However, I found Hotel Iris somehow unsatisfying. It was a bit like an S&M Lolita, but with the Humbert personality replaced with a man who had even fewer redeeming features (I found the translator completely repellent) and the girl, I just couldn’t connect with. And maybe (probably) that was intentional, but the end result was that while on an intellectual level I could appreciate Ogawa’s skill, on an emotional level it left me cold – so this is reflected in my star rating for this book. That said, I think Hotel Iris is a book that will stay with me and I wonder if I would find other books by this author interesting.

Sadly I missed the boat for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5 (how have I not managed to read any Japanese literature this year?!) but scanned through the site to see others thoughts and found this excellent review by Tony’s Reading List. I’m a little bit scared now that I’m an archetypal Anglophone now! Kim of Reading Matters also enjoyed Hotel Iris (her review is here). Claire of Paperback Reader also posted her thoughts.

Have you read anything by Yoko Ogawa and if so would you recommend I read another by her?

7 responses to “Hotel Iris, by Yoko Ogawa

  1. I enjoyed The Housekeeper and the Professor which sounds like it is completely different from Hotel Iris as it’s a very gentle book. You may want to try it but you may find it has less impact! I was in two minds about reading this book but I think I may just have to read it to see what all the fuss is about!

  2. Ogawa sounds like a versatile author. Funnily, even though I didn’t love this book as I thought I would, I would be interested to read her other writing. I can lend you my copy of Hotel Iris if you haven’t already got one?

  3. I really enjoyed The Diving Pool. There are some unsettling themes but they are alluded to rather than described in great detail. Plus, it is a book of short stories so you can skip the story and move on to the next one if you’re not liking it.

  4. I would second Sakura’s mention of The Housekeeper and the Professor which I thought was a stunning and beautiful book (polar opposite of Hotel Iris which I found grimly fascinating) and I think you would absolutely love it.

    Great post on this one and your reactions to it, I felt similar about Ian McEwans first short story collection ‘First Love, Last Rites’ I came away feeling grubby for having read on.

  5. Had very similar feelings after reading this. You should definitely give Housekeepr + Professor a go, it’s stunningly beautiful…

    • Hi Bookatlas! Yes, a few people have said that – I might see if there is a copy in the library I can get my hands on…

  6. I have read Ogawa and recommend them all; however, the type of Japanese literature represented by this author and available from other authors isn’t for everyone it seems (in reading groups Ogawa has been described as pleasant but boring).

    Of course I should also recommend Banana Yoshimoto, especially her earlier works, but I just completed a comparison between a novel by Ryu Murakami and the movie that was made from it: Audition. I wrote a few comments at my WordPress site which discusses both why I enjoy the novel more but also why the film adaptation was understandably changed from the original.

    Read more Japanese literature: it is amazing.

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