fiction, review

The Diving Pool

newest Vintage edition’s cover (source: amazon.co.uk)

It’s disturbingly beautiful, and beautifully disturbing. Yōko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, had me trapped completely in its quiet eeriness while I was marveling at the absorbing writing. This was my very first try at reading Yōko Ogawa and already my third one at Japanese literature, though I wouldn’t say that I’ve finally been able to wrap my mind around it. Even now, I’m still finding it difficult to fully catch the very basic idea that lies beneath every narrative written by Japanese authors. This may be an evidence of my low understanding of Japanese literary art, but I can assure you that it doesn’t stop me at all from thoroughly enjoying it.

In the first novella, of which title is also used as the book’s title, Ogawa tells a story of a teenage girl who lives in an orphanage. The dreadful loneliness that surges through her comes from the fact that she, as the only child of the orphanage’s owners, cannot have her parents’ love and attention to herself, while she cannot possibly cut ties with them to join the ranks. The heavy burden of that loneliness on her shoulders becomes more intense as she falls in love with one of the orphans her parents take care of, Jun. For some reason, she cannot tell anyone, even Jun himself, about her feelings for him. She is so caged in her own secret love that she consciously, or not, does bad things to someone else weaker.

The second story sees a single woman’s keeping record of his sister’s pregnancy every so often, if not regularly. In this novella entitled Pregnancy Diary, instead of talking about the growth of the baby, the woman seems more interested in capturing her sister’s changing mood, seemingly endless morning sickness, strange food craving, psychologically disturbed condition, the husband’s doting attitude, and their reluctance to talk about their baby. Oddly enough, as the narrative moves forward, the single woman doesn’t appear to feel any sympathy nor empathy for her sister. She may not understand how it feels to be with child, but her nonchalant attitude makes the reader wonder if she ever cares about her sibling at all.

Dormitory is the simplest yet the most mysterious story of all. It tells about a woman who comes back to the dormitory she lived in all those days of her study at the university, her intention being helping her much younger cousin register and get a room there. She feels a rush of memories and that nothing has changed, physically. However, the fact is that there isn’t a single student living there anymore, and the Manager, a disabled old man with a weakening body, lives all alone to keep the building. Every once in a while, the woman goes to the shabby dormitory to visit her cousin. But instead of meeting him, she always, and only, gets to meet the Manager. Through their frequent encounters and long conversations, she comes to know what drives people to leave the place and not to come back forever: a boy has gone missing, and everyone throws their suspicion at the Manager. No one knows where the boy has gone, and why. It remains a mystery, and the Manager remains lonely in his last critical days.

All the main characters of the three novellas feel, and present, the same thing: loneliness. At least, that’s what I got throughout reading them. They seem to be isolated, unattached to anything and anyone, despite their familial relationships. They are also unbearably gloomy, depressed, sad in some ways… All the words that can possibly describe them seem to lead the reader to anything but social and happy. It makes me wonder, is this the basic idea? The sense of loneliness? Isolation? Unattachment to anything and anyone? Or is it their response to those senses? However, what I noticed most was that they have quite different characterizations. Thus, in turn, the nature of their actions and deeds differ from each other. While Aya tends to be abusive, and the single woman aloof, the lonely married woman in Dormitory seems to err on the side of caring.

The Diving Pool is very nice to read, very easy to devour. Despite the eerie atmosphere and cryptic message, all the three novellas are so beautifully written in great detail that readers will not miss a thing. Every inanimate object, every token, every scene are depicted as meticulously as possible, allowing the reader to have a clear picture in their minds and follow the plot without difficulty. The pace set by Ogawa for every single story is comfortably steady and not too hasty, and the tone she immerses into it resonates very much strongly even from the simplest word or sentence. Yōko Ogawa has presented us with a writing of profound beauty, with gripping characters to boot. And, surely, I have to thank Stephen Snyder, the translator, for the smooth translation so I could enjoy that writing.

So, despite my lack of intelligence in fully comprehending the prose style of Japanese literary works, I can say that I did enjoy The Diving Pool. Perhaps its cryptic, enigmatic nature is a part of its charm and attraction. At some point I even thought that the stories in it are more mysterious than any mystery novel I read recently.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has been booming for over two years now, and yet it seems unlikely for the book to see its echo die anytime soon. Labeled as a thriller/mystery novel, it surprisingly does not have lots of thrills this kind of book needs and, unfortunately, the mystery encasing it only lasts for the first part of the story and then dissolves mysteriously into thin air. So much like Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, this Flynn’s third work of such fiction focuses more on its drama and the psychologically disturbing characters employed to twist its already winding narrative. It does have a mind-blowing idea of mixing marriage and murder, in a very unusual yet very real way, but calling it pure crime fiction wouldn’t feel comfortably right.

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife, Amy, is gone and no one knows where she is or where she goes. There is no clue or trace left to lead to her whereabouts, but there are some horrible, convincing evidences of violence and aggressive attacks on Amy before she is, presumably, being kidnapped. The police wastes no time in getting up and investigating the case, throwing suspicion at Nick in the process. Nick insists he is innocent, unfortunately all the evidences found say the opposite, and he doesn’t have an appropriate alibi to prove that he doesn’t kidnap or kill his own wife. Moreover, his negligent demeanor undeniably mirrors the state of guilty he must be in, showing that he doesn’t care, and is even happy, if his wife is gone missing or dead. With more and more proofs, the police finally arrests him and gets him awaiting for trial. But then, something strange happens and the trial has to be canceled. Nick cannot feel relieved, though, because he must be forever glued to his guilty status and will never have the free life he fervently desires.

I would say that the two main characters here are the main attraction of the book. Amy and Nick are not, basically, normal characters by fiction standard. Throughout the story, the reader can see that Amy is everything that Nick is not. Even the subtle description of Nick being an average man while Amy is an above-the-average woman leads us to the fact that Amy is more than Nick in everything: smarter, brighter, richer, and frighteningly, more hateful, more vengeful, more selfish, and more insane. It turns Nick’s insecurity even lower, rendering him suffering a crisis of confidence not only in front of his wife, but also within himself. It is no wonder then that Nick feels like he gets stabbed right in his male pride and dignity and eventually, when it’s already too much for him, runs to some average young woman who can match him in everything.

So this is where the problem lies, the spot that, in my opinion, gets the brightest light so the reader can see it crystal clear. The conflict between men and women is what actually drives the whole narrative—the wrecked marriage, the cheat, the murder, the mind-boggling scheme. Men have a certain standard of how women, physically and characteristically, should be. And when women fail to meet that standard, or marvelously go beyond that standard, they will not have it.

“[And] the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even

pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be

the woman a man wants them to be.”

—Amy Elliot Dunne

This book, with all its idea, characters, and storyline, vehemently tries to fight against the pattern of fairy tales. I noticed that at some point Amy really mocked how women usually behave in romantic fiction books through her voiced narration, making me raise my eyebrows both in agreement and tame disapproval. However, on the other hand, Flynn also seems to want to create criteria for perfect men through Amy’s demand on Nick to be a “loving, doting, caring, understanding, faithful” husband. Alas, eventually, all we are forced to see is how people are trying so hard to be the ideal, and how exhausting and brain-consuming it can be.

Divided into three parts, Gone Girl is told from two different, changing points of view. The story unfolds in a very deceptive, frustrating, overlong narrative, with all its misleading clues and distractingly convincing evidences. Well, at least for the first part of it, for then the reader is entertained with a sucking marital drama and psycho characters. Flynn deftly leads the reader through her puzzling, twisting initial plot without so much as a little clue until we arrive just at the first page of part two. Such a shame, the most mysterious part of the book is also the most boring one. It was really a struggle to finish it. It wasn’t until the end of it that I could completely enjoy the whole storyline, albeit I had to lose the exciting thrill, for all of the mysteries seemed to have been answered already. Starting the second part, every strange description, every enigmatic sentence, seems to dissolve itself and leaves the reader able to guess what they will find next. However, though all the excitement seems to end there, finally seeing everything through Amy’s honest lens and looking at what truly inside her head is are very much tensely enjoyable. But there was something that bothered me quite much: why did Nick have to realize his wife’s way of thinking all of a sudden after the first half through the book? After all those clues? Why the suddenness? The plunging ending Flynn sets to conclude the entire story also left me unsatisfied. I almost hoped she would have prolonged the third instead of the first part. To me, it’s just a little too fast.

All in all, I must say that Gone Girl is a fabulous psychological crime drama, but not a proper thriller/mystery novel. I adore the magnificent idea it has, but I’m left unenthralled, even now, by its overly long plot and awkwardly executed ending.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Room

A book can be as exciting as it is saddening. Emma Donoghue’s Room has proven it. A Man Booker Prize finalist, the book tells of a heart-twisting expression of maternal love written from the viewpoint of a cute, smart yet still innocent little child who is forced to weave his way through the puzzling “outside” world he never knows existing. It is mostly adventurous, but there are parts where its atmosphere drags us into a deeply compassionate feeling. I wouldn’t say, looking at the narrative, that it is a wow thing, but I dare say it’s a must read in that it shows us how to understand the feelings of both a mother and a child.

To Jack, a five-year-old boy, Room is the world, the real world where he was born, where he lives “a normal life” with his Ma. What the eleven-by-eleven-foot space offers him is all he has, all his Ma can give him. He just doesn’t realize what he truly needs, what the Outside world can be to him. Now that he is five, his curiosity is growing with the vividness of everything on TV and all the things outside his skylight. Meanwhile, Ma can no longer answer his numerous questions and explain what he should know by experience. Being locked up for seven years has been hard enough for her to bear, and she knows that neither of them can stay there any longer. But getting out of the coded Room is no easy task, and living in the Outside is even more difficult afterward. Jack sees the real world as a new, strange place and he’s scared of, though a little bit enthusiastic about, many of its things and inhabitants. He longs for going back to Room, where it is his “home”, where everything is normal and nice and believable to him. While his Ma is trying to adapt to the normalcy of life she’s once known very well, Jack has to learn everything from the very start. He has even to feel what it’s like to live without his Ma and trust his strange Grandma and Steppa with his life. At the end, he discovers that the Outside world is his actual place to live and that he won’t go back to Room forever.

Jack is really a wonder kid. He’s as innocent as any other five-year-old boy, but his limited space is the only thing to blame for his astonishing innocence, for his Ma has taught him everything she can. He knows practically anything, math, reading, common knowledge. In other words, he is as smart as he is naive. Jack is portrayed very dependant to his mother as well, cannot see himself away from her. And he is so persistent in his way, naturally, childishly stubborn sometimes, also brave and endearing. He is a boy anyone would want as a child. Donoghue has successfully described him in precise, contradictory detail. She presents to the reader every psychological stage Jack has to step on, from the time he is still in Room up to the level when he is already Outside. The fear, the excitement, the awe, the bewilderment. His every thinking and feeling are so brilliantly put into words with just the right dose of lucidity. Donoghue even describes Jack’s language development through his spoken narration and dialogues, and they all seem so convincing. It’s so rare for me to read a fiction book written from a child’s perspective, and Donoghue has amazed me with hers. As for Ma, her character is so resonant of a depressed mother. Caring and loving, she also longs for her old self, her free, young, old self. All of that longing, along with her depression, confusion, mood swing and deep maternal love, is depicted very clearly yet very subtly at the same time.

Room is excellently built, consisting of five separated yet seamlessly continuous parts. It feels unbelievably stressful at times, emanating an atmosphere of desperation and misery, but it’s also cheerful where Jack’s concerned. Though founded on a true criminal case, I don’t find it terrifying when the villain comes to the scene and steals the show. In fact, I’d rather think that Old Nick’s presence is, aside from quite significant, captivating and thrilling, in a good way. Meanwhile, every time Jack and Ma appear, the atmosphere turns lovely and tender and sometimes depressing. Ma has only love for Jack, but her terrible experience and depression complicate her mind and put more burden onto her shoulder. Jack is her only anchor to the world, but I got a feeling that, through Donoghue’s clever descriptions, she’s a bit burdened by Jack’s dependency on her. All those confusing, blended atmospheres are the result of Donoghue’s brilliant writing. It’s colorful, rich, connected to any reader despite being told from a child’s point of view. I must say that I don’t quite like the narrative, especially when they seem to get out of Room so easily then have to face paparazzi and get exploited in the media like instant celebrities, and I’m really disappointed about that. However, the pace is very flowing and smooth so you’ll never be bored in the middle of the book. What the best is when Jack has to deal with his bewilderment toward the world and adjust his every step. He’s quite smart and lovable about it, despite his innocence and very limited experience.

Overall, Room by Emma Donoghue is a fabulous work of fiction. I like the basic idea, to be honest, I just don’t really like the series of events, though it ends with a riveting conclusion. In spite of the fact that I hate how it goes, Jack’s story is profound and very powerful.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction

Lolita

Indonesian edition’s cover

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita has always been the talk of the literary world ever since its first coming-out, being an object of study and critical scrutiny. First published in 1955, Lolita is still the most standout work of  literary fiction about psychological problem and what people deem to be a deviant, perverse sexual behavior to this day. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly about pedophilia, though if you step back a little bit you’ll probably see it that way, for, to my thinking, it encompasses a wider range of issues and thoughts than we can comprehend.

Humbert Humbert is a lonely man even as he is a child, with a dead mother, a lustful love for a childhood friend named Annabel who then dies from typhus, abundant sexual desire satisfied in prostitution, and a wife who cheats and leaves him. He never seems to get any consolation in love, much less in life. It somehow affects his psychological condition, how he thinks and how he sees things. But no matter what molds him, he knows that he is attracted to little girls, thinking that they are desirable and make him burned with passion.

When he moves from his native country to America, he happens to meet this little pre-teen girl named Dolores Haze, who looks so much like Annabel, endearingly calling her Lolita. Desire drives him eager to get closer to the girl, and to that end, he marries her mother Charlotte, who is so in love with him. But then Charlotte discovers his deepest secret and his unbearable desire for her daughter. She makes a dash for it and gets killed in an accident, providing Humbert with an opportunity to have Lolita in his arms. He takes the girl traveling around America and they make love in secret. Lolita doesn’t resist, doesn’t even bother to cover her sexual attraction for Humbert, thinking of herself as Humbert’s lover. When Humbert first asks her to make love to him, she neither refuses nor escapes. However, everything changes over time and when she is getting older, she realizes that she falls in love with somebody else and runs away.

Reading the character of Humbert Humbert won’t be enough with study and scrutiny only. He is too complex to understand, too psychologically complicated to comprehend. His behavior is dangerously deviant, to say the least, but psychological approach alone cannot explain nor elaborate exactly the ground for his socially unacceptable behavior. And what astounded me even more is that the way he narrates his feelings and thoughts makes him look normal, as if desiring for a little girl is just as unsurprising as someone getting tired after working from nine to five. And the portrayal of Lolita doesn’t help, either. Being a pre-teen girl, I don’t think it is abnormal for her to have an indecisive mind. But I cannot even read her mind clearly for the description of her character is painted through Humbert’s point of view, which is doubtfully true to objectivity. It is very much impossible for me to decide if she and Humbert really share a certain feeling whatsoever.

Like the character of Humbert, the language Nabokov used in writing Lolita is so beautifully complicated and too hard to take. Nevertheless, I had no problem in enjoying the story since it has a nice plot to follow, albeit equipped with too detailed descriptions. What becomes a problem is, I have to say, the point of view from which the story is being told. I can see what’s being narrated, but I cannot decide completely whether it is about pedophilia or not, or is it actually talking about unconditional love between two people of two different generations. Humbert’s point of view blurs everything and makes the narrative subjective in a way that I cannot comprehend. What Nabokov wants to deliver is unclearly ambiguous to me that I cannot catch the true message of the story, if any, or even the point at all. Fortunately it is well-written, putting aside the language barrier I experienced in the teeth of reading it, making it unboring to read after all.

At the end, I must say that Lolita is indeed a marvelous work of literary fiction, a unique, peculiar creation of human story about sex, lust and love, blended with psychological problem and children’s confusion in their growing-up stage. Lolita is definitely not an easy read, but it seems a must to read it to broaden our horizon and to see the other side of human and humanity, though in a haze.

Rating: 3.5/5