Tag Archives: Novella

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?

The Visitor, by Maeve Brennan

3 stars


Originally written in the 1940s, The Visitor is a novella about a young woman named Anastasia, who returns to Ireland after living in Paris for six years. When she arrives, her Grandmother – Mrs King, greets her with a cool manner and instead of finding a welcoming home, is faced with the realisation that she is considered a ‘visitor’.

Atlantic Books, 2001 edition (first published in the 1940s), 86 pages - personal library

I’m not quite sure what I feel about The Visitor. I enjoyed the way that the novel had an element of suspense about it. Brennan builds an unsettling atmosphere with curious characters who either keep a cold reserve (Mrs King) or who are, at the other end of the scale, overwhelmingly emotional with an undertone of desperation (Miss Kilbride). Like Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, the house appeared at times to have it’s own creepy personality. Despite, the suspenseful start, I was a bit baffled by the ending because I couldn’t decide if it was really quite disturbing or a bit of a let down. I think that I was expecting something more dramatic, whereas the drama is really all in the psychology of the novel and the way that Anastasia feels and the other characters respond to her.

I think that there is also an important element of the reader’s perspective. The Grandmother is portrayed as a monstrous person, but perhaps this is because we experience everything from Anastasia’s point of view. There is clearly an important piece of the puzzle missing – it is implied that Anastasia’s mother and the Grandmother were always at odds and that Mrs King was an unhealthy influence on the family. That said, is Anastasia, or more to the point her understanding of the situation reliable or not?

At certain points in the novella, I found my empathy for Anastasia faded. She seemed to be missing some vital spark of self-preservation. This frustrated me, but possibly being a woman who has grown up in a modern-world, makes it harder to relate, and I suppose Brennan isn’t exactly trying to portray a heroine – but a situation and a impression of Anastasia’s circumstances.

I couldn’t help but compare Brennan’s style to that of Barbara Comyns, who was writing during a similar period. I think she teases out the nastier elements of human behaviour in a more disturbing way and somehow her quirky writing packs more of a punch. The Visitor was an interesting and clever piece of writing but it felt incomplete, and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

For a different perspective, you might like to read Savidge Reads’ review who in contrast to me appreciated the lack of drama, but was also a little non-plussed by the ending and also this glowing review at Reading Matters which also adds some useful context about the author.

Have you read this or any of Brennan’s other writing and would you recommend reading more?

The Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

3.5 stars3.5/5

The Private Lives of Trees, was February’s Riverside Readers choice from Armen, who never fails to choose something different and surprising.

Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

Open Letter, 2010 edition (paperback), 98 pages - book group.

Zambra, a Chilean author, tells the story of a single night in the life of Julian, a young professor of literature. He reads to his step-daughter Daniela, while waiting for his wife Veronica to return from her art class. The later it gets into the night, the more nervous Julian becomes about whether she will return.

The reader is like a fly on the wall watching Julian, the book’s main subject, in three states: In the present – telling stories to his step-daughter Daniela, In the past- remembering his ex-girlfriend Karla and recalling how he met his wife, and in an imagined future where Daniela is in different stages of womanhood. Julian is introspective and uncertain – comparing himself jealously to the Daniela’s father.

The Private Lives of Trees, is a book that feels fleeting. At just under 100 pages it is brief and the spare use language adds to the overall minimalist impression. Recalling the story for my book group was a bit like waking up from a dream and struggling to remember details, but being left with a particular feeling. Many of the descriptions feel fluid and dreamlike:

“The point of the pen draws lines, the ink covers the page with black water.”

There are parts of the book that verge on surreal, and Zambra clearly enjoys experimenting with the idea of what it is to write a novel. Perhaps Julian, an aspiring writer is creating his own reality? At times it feels like a clever work of art and at others, simply the story of a self-consious man and his rather tender relationship with his step-daughter.

The Private Lives of Trees is a book you can pick-up, experience and will leave you thoughtful. For me, it was a bit like the experience of wandering into an art-gallery at whim and following my nose around an exhibition. It was playfully written, but I never found myself lost in the way that I did with Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller or Kafka’s The Trial. One of our book group members said that it was a book that asked nothing of the reader, which is exactly how I felt. It was absorbing when I was reading it, but I left the characters and the moment behind when I turned the final page.

Have you read any books that felt fleeting / self-contained in this way?

Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

3.5 stars3.5/5

Published in 1872, Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula, by 25 years, and is the account of a young woman named Laura who unwittingly becomes susceptible to the attentions of a female vampire.

Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

112 pages, Downloaded via the Eucalyptus App for iPhone (Picture is from the 2000 Prime Classics Library edition).

While thinking of a book choice for the November Novella Challenge II, I remembered that I had downloaded this Gothic Novella on my iPhone (Eucalyptus App) and so decided to read the book that influenced Dracula and countless lesbian vampire films!

I found Carmilla to be written in an easy and engaging style. Le Fanu makes good use of description to create atmosphere and form images in the reader’s mind but doesn’t divert too much from the plot which progresses at a good pace. I was quite enchanted by one description of the landscape of Styria (in Austria) where the story is set:

“We sat down on a rude bench, under a group of magnificent lime trees. The sun was setting with all its melancholy splendor behind the sylvan horizon, and the stream that flows beside our home and passes under the steep old bridge I have mentioned, wound through many a group of noble trees, almost at our feet, reflecting in its current the fading crimson of the sky.”

While most people now would not consider Carmilla to be a frightening story it does have an eerie creeping atmosphere and Le Fanu creates intrigue by dropping hints (not always subtle) about the danger that threatens Laura along the way, like the fact that a friend’s daughter has recently died in strange circumstances.

“The fiend who betrayed our infatuated hospitality has done it all.”

There is a heavily suggested sexual dynamic between Laura and Carmilla, which adds a more disturbing dimension to the story. The vampire, who takes pleasure in prolonging full possession of her victim, is grooming Laura. While Carmilla seems almost in love with Laura at times, it becomes apparent as the book goes on that the passion that she displays is a result of her lust for blood.

“Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering…”

Carmilla is definitely worth reading if you are at all interested in the gothic genre. It is a much better story than The Castle of Otranto (which I read a few months ago), because it has the right balance between being melodramatic in parts and also well written. It is also a much quicker read than Dracula if you fancy curling up for an afternoon and devouring (excuse the pun) a vampire story in one sitting.

Have you read any novels that you would recommend in the gothic genre?

If you are interested in the November Novella Challenge you can find details by clicking on the lovely button below:

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, by Freidrich Christian Delius

Portrait of The Mother as a Young Woman, by Friedrich Christian Delius

Peirene Press, 2010, 125 pages, review copy.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the third publication from Peirene Press. Translated from the original German novella by Freidrich Christian Delius (published 2008), the book charts one afternoon in the life of a young German woman during the Nazi era. The young woman is pregnant, and living in Rome in 1943 in an old people’s home run by Evangelical nuns. Her husband is a soldier posted in Africa.

The narrative structure of the story is unusual. The whole book is told in one long sentence. While the story is not written in the first person, the long sentence makes it feel like a stream of consciousness. This unusual structure works well. It is surprisingly easy to follow, as the paragraphs indicate where one observation moves to another, and actually makes the story flow quite beautifully. I felt as if I was right there with this young pregnant woman, in a warm haze, walking along on a bright afternoon.

What the author does quite cleverly is to create a mood where time feels suspended. Also, the woman’s thoughts feel almost unconsious, as if she is absorbing what she sees and feels around her into her thought process, and these things trigger other ideas in her head. To begin with there is an atmosphere of orderliness – fresh flowers, nurses with starched bonnets and a sense of the connection that the woman has with her own pregnant body. Throughout the narrative, worrying doubts seem to enter the woman’s mind at the edge of her subconsciousness. She considers that bombs ‘never drop’ on Rome. This is repeated throughout the book with an assertion that the allies would never think of destroying such a historic an beautiful city. It feels as if she is assuring herself ‘they wouldn’t would they?’.

The woman is portrayed as naive, although the author hints that it may be a sort of chosen innocence. She notices the newspapers posted up for all to see, but cannot understand the Italian words:

“…she was happy that she was unable to read, any of it and did not have to, even in Germany she had not read the papers, it was better not to know too much, not to ask too much, not to say too much, one always heard bad news soon enough…”

Later she considers whether an Italian and German victory is really assured. She wonders about whether there are any Jews in Rome:

“…she could not recall having seen any, maybe wearing yellow stars on their coats, and she had not heard the thorny word Jew uttered by any of her Roman acquaintances…”

At times her thoughts about what she has been taught in in the League of German Girls, and the morals that she has been brought up with by her family are conflicted. She wonders whether Hitler could be wrong to be seeming sometimes to be putting himself on a par with God. She thinks of her friend Gert’s comment that “if the Führer places himself above God and God’s will, then we must not follow him blindly” but comments how it ‘was all so difficult with GOD WITH US stood on the soldiers’ belt buckles, above an eagle on a swastika, God and Führer were united on every uniform”.

I would normally expect to find such seemingly forced naiveté frustrating or irritating, however I found that I couldn’t help but empathise with this young woman, who was going through a momentous period of her life, missing her husband posted thousands of miles away. The author’s descriptions of the relationship between the woman and her view of her own body are very tender, and the courtship of husband and wife are equally moving, making her seem like just a very ordinary kind of person, and making her easy to relate to.

Delius should be congratulated on producing a rather beautiful descriptive work, and also managing to find the fine line between trying to show how an ordinary German woman could shut themselves off from the awful realities of the Nazi regime, while avoiding crossing over to being an work of apology.

This was a review copy that I was really looking forward to receiving, and I wasn’t disappointed. I hope that Peirene Press can continue to introduce me to these lovely works of European translated literature. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a beautiful, elegant and thought-provoking piece of writing.

My rating:

8 out of 10

What novellas have you read recently and loved? Can you recommend other publishers that highlight more unusual or otherwise less easily accessed works of fiction?

Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi

Peirene Press, 2010, 120 pages, review copy.

Glowing reviews from other bloggers brought this little book to my attention and in doing so, Peirene Press also which is a new independent publishing house whose mission is to bring gems of contemporary European fiction to monoglots like myself who can read only in English. The Peirene translation of Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide was my first, very positive experience of this publisher and now I have read all three that have been printed so far. All are short – around 100 pages or so. The brevity of these books is not the only thing that they share however. I have found that each novella is written with a certain intensity which leaves me feeling slightly bereft on turning the final page. In this regard, Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi was no exception.

In Beside the Sea, a single mother takes her two little boys for a holiday by the seaside. How delightful, yes? No. From the outset the mood is subdued. The bus journey is late at night and it is too dark outside to be able to see the countryside as they pass it. The mother is conscious that her children are the only ones creating a disturbance. When they reach the hotel, they climb laboriously up the stairs to the sixth floor, to find a sad little room with torn sheets and a shared bathroom. When they go to the supermarket and to a cafe, people are hostile. On top of that it rains, and rains and rains.

It is clear that something is not right and that the narrator (the boys’ mother) is unsettled. References to missed medication and social workers hint at this, and an obvious lack of money suggests a deprived background. The narrative voice is at times soft and contemplative, full of love for her children, and at others veers towards anger at the world. One heartbreaking scene in the book is when they go to get a bite to eat, and the mother goes to pay with the few coins that they have:

“The owner looked disgusted, he looked at the scattered money like he’d never seen anything so dirty…”

It is hard to tell if people are really cold and cruel or if the mother, only perceives this to be the case. The mother’s internal reaction to her older son Stan’s actions seem out of proportion to reality. When they go down to the beach Stan runs off ahead in his own little world, and when she catches up to him “something terrible happened”. The little boy hits her and runs away, leaving her feeling  that a great chasm has come between them. Her language, while quite basic, is full of heavy-emotion and conveys a sense of desolation which permeates throughout the novel:

“I no longer existed. I had no voice left, no more words, nothing could reach him. I stopped shouting. Stan’s outsized clothes were moving all on their own in the wind, he reminded me of a boat. I didn’t know how to bring boats in.”

Beside the Sea, is a sad, sad novel. It is is also unique, moving and completely heart-stopping.

My rating:

9 out of 10