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Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

17-year-old Mari is something of a Cinderella figure. Her dad dies a violent death when she is only eight years old and left her in the sole custody of her money-grubbing mother who works poor Mari like a slave in the upkeep of their shabby hotel. The Hotel Iris is a rundown hotel with only one seaside view, frequented in the off-season by prostitutes and only bustling in the sweltering three summer months. Mari first spies her transformative figure in her life–a man fifty years her senior who got into a raucous fight with a prostitute in the hotel. Transfixed by his commanding voice, Mari follows the man the next day as he performs errands in town. When he confronts her, the two strike up a strange friendship.

The man (very common in Ogawa’s novel not to have a name for her characters) lives on a small island where he works translating Russian texts and a Russian novel which coincidentally has a character named Marie. Their subsequent rendezvous is preceded by long love letters by the translator and she always make up lies to go out at their appointed dates. In the seaside town he treats her with quiet deference, but when Mari visits his small, austere home on the island she undergoes a bizarre experience.

It’s a short book, so I’ll stop here and not introduce any spoilers if you may wish to read the book in the future.

This question always pop up on my head when I read a book. Perhaps it started with the Twilight Saga. Why is it that we always rate a movie but not a book? Personally I find the images conjure by reading a text is perhaps as vivid as watching a video. In this instance, this book deserves this rating according to the British Board of film classification:

No-one younger than 18 may see an ‘18’ film in a cinema. No-one younger than 18 may rent or buy an ‘18’ rated video work (or book, in this case!).

Past bloggers have introduced the book well without giving me any hints what it is all about (well done you!). The book explores the psychology of BDSM relationship. A topic which some may find uncomfortable, including myself. When I saw the book sitting on the shelf of the library, I wanted to read it, more out of curiosity because I enjoyed The Housekeeper + The Professor and spooked by The Diving Pool.  

I suppose I set myself up for a horrific reading experience before I read the book, so when the horrific scenes actually happened, I could stomach it, but the final scene is still one that left my heart palpitating with anxiety.

The introduction of a nephew in the story lulled me into a false sense of security, wonder perhaps things are settled into normality with a third party in the picture. I think the nephew interlude was just a distraction to reader to contrast how a normal relationship should be as compared to the perverse one that Mari is addicted to.

My take-away from the book is some inkling on why man and woman subjected themselves to such relationship. We, as a reader, see what Mari can’t see, even as we accept the savage doom of their romance. Her mother, always bragging about Mari’s beauty, make her believes she is ugly and unworthy of any love, thus succumb to a perverse relationship.

Rating: 3.5/5

Ogawa is a very good writer. Clear, precise and spot-on; and translator Stephen Snyder has done a marvelous job giving Mari’s Japanese voice into smooth, melancholic, rhythmic sentences that any non-Japanese reader can relate to.

I started with her hopeful The Housekeeper + The Professor and then move on to her darker The Diving Pool and now in her darkest still in Hotel Iris. Hotel Iris is not for everyone. That’s how reading goes, sometimes we read stuff that is uncomfortable to us to challenge our own  reactions to such material. Proceed with caution. You are warned about this one.

I am reading this one for J-Lit 4.

Paperback [164 pages] [Harvill Secker 2010, originally published in Japan 1996]; Japan, [Library Loot], translated by Stephen Synder.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


21 thoughts on “Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

  1. It seems that lots of Japanese books have strong sex content in it. The last one I read was Snake and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara, and it had BDSM scenes in it as well (with disturbing ending too). I could stomach it, but I think I’ll stay away from Hotel Iris for a while and make priority for the Housekeeper and the Professor first.

    Posted by mee | July 26, 2010, 3:26 am
    • @Mee, it does seem so, doesn’t it? I know since young, some of the Japanese manga should be rated 18+. I’ll stay away from Snake and Earrings and tread other Japanese books with caution.

      Posted by JoV | July 26, 2010, 9:57 pm
    • I don’t doubt you can stomach this Mee 🙂 But I kinda think this is more disturbing (on the girl-getting-abused level) compared to Snakes and Earrings. Mari, to me, also feels more fragile and that’s what made the book more heartbreaking to me. However I do believe that Ogawa meant more for this book than just break reader’s hearts. There’s a more cerebral aspect to this book that I failed to connect with. Maybe because I was focusing more on the prose, and got too distracted by the plot.

      Posted by Mark David | August 8, 2010, 3:48 am
  2. Lovely review! I liked the rating you have given the book, like a movie rating 🙂 I agree with you that the book is not for everyone. I haven’t read ‘The Diving Pool’ yet and can’t wait to read it. I hope more Ogawa’s books are translated into English – her beautiful prose and minimalistic way of depicting characters (no names) have made me an Ogawa fan!

    Posted by Vishy | July 26, 2010, 10:07 am
    • Vishy, thanks for dropping by. I’m going to use that rating frequently.. if I get the chance. 🙂 I do hope more of Ogawa’s work is translated, she wrote so many books! Disturbing read don’t go well with me, but I might change my mind if I read more of her work. I still rate Murakami on top of the game when it comes to Japanese literature. I need to venture out a little and read a few more Japanese authors and see how it goes.

      Posted by JoV | July 26, 2010, 9:54 pm
  3. Great review, Jo! I still haven´t read any Ogawa, but it sounds like I might enjoy her books. Glad the translation´s good, but how I wish I could read Japanese 🙂

    Posted by Bina | July 26, 2010, 11:41 am
    • @Bina.. aww.. come on.. you read too much. I can’t imagine if you start picking up Japanese language will we ever find Bina doing anything else if she is hungry for those wonderful Japanese novels that are out there in the big wide world!! 😉

      Posted by JoV | July 26, 2010, 9:52 pm
  4. Your review made me really curious about this, even though I wasn’t a fan of Housekeeper & the Professor. The hotel setting reminds me a bit of Yoshimoto’s Goodbye, Tsugumi!

    Posted by Eva | July 30, 2010, 3:48 pm
  5. I think it would be hard and somewhat foolish to attempt to rate books in the same way that movies are rated. First off, movie ratings are often pretty bad and many countries forsake them, assuming their public is smart enough to know which movies are for them and which aren’t. More to the point, though, is the fact that books (a lot more than movies) can mean different things for different people. Young people may not pick up on things that adults might view as vulgar. And generation gaps are far more prevalent in books than in movies, I think.

    Perhaps summaries should suggest that the book is disturbing or “for mature readers”. Not exactly censoring, but presenting the facts a little more clearly…

    Posted by Biblibio | August 1, 2010, 5:51 pm
  6. I loved the housekeeper & the professor & really loved the diving pool, so am going to give this a go. Not found anymore Ogawa books translated into English, have you?

    Posted by parrishlantern | August 6, 2010, 9:34 pm
  7. I have to confess, I waited for this book with so much anticipation because I loved The Diving Pool so much, but when I finally got to reading it I didn’t finish because I sort of chickened out. Ogawa’s prose is sooo beautiful. As you said, precise. That’s why reading Iris is both pain and pleasure 🙂

    Posted by Mark David | August 8, 2010, 3:37 am
    • Mark, you need to finish Hotel Iris. You are a funny one, make me laugh :D. How can you ever sleep in peace at night not knowing what happen to a novel you care about? 😀

      Posted by JoV | August 8, 2010, 8:41 pm
  8. Jo, hope you’re having a blast on your holidays! I finished Hotel Iris this weekend and had to reread your review 🙂 I really enjoyed the book, I know I’ve only read Yoshimoto and now this one, but I feel like saying that Ogawa’s prose and topic is very typical for and representative of Japanese fiction:)

    Posted by Bina | October 24, 2010, 8:09 pm
    • Bina, it is very typical of Japanese fiction right? For me Mishima’s classical style feels more “typical” if you know what I mean. I have to hop over and check out your reviews! I am glad you enjoyed it. 😉

      Posted by JoV | October 29, 2010, 9:45 pm
      • Haven’t managed to get anymore reviewing done in october, I was an awful blogger. But I think a computer break was good for me and now I’m hoping to get the review of Hotel Iris up this week.

        Hmmh, Mishima . . .you’re killing me Jo, I was so proud to have finally read a Ogawa 😀 Sounds like I need to read something by Mishma next.

        Posted by Bina | November 2, 2010, 6:47 pm
        • Bina, I TOTALLY agree with you. I think I need a book and computer break. it is good for both of us. Please read one Mishima, I would love to hear what you think about it! 😀 I went to this awesome bibliotek one day and I wish you were there! More about this when I find time! 😀

          Posted by JoV | November 3, 2010, 10:48 am


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  2. Pingback: Review: Hotel Iris « If you can read this - November 18, 2010

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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