Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Published by Vintage, 2011
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This fascinating little novel is not always easy to stomach, but Ogawa is incredibly skilled at crafting the kind of hypnotic atmosphere that makes it impossible to look away, no matter how uncomfortable you are. We follow Mari, a 17-year-old who helps her mother run a hotel in a quiet Japanese seaside town. She meets a much older man who lives on a tiny island off the coast, and the two soon strike up a bizarre relationship. Mari’s unnamed suitor is charming and affectionate when they venture out together, but he subjects her to a series of physical, emotional, and sexual humiliations whenever the two are alone at his home.
Due to the nature of the subject matter, there’s no denying this won’t be for everyone, with some truly graphic scenes of what many would categorise as out-right abuse. But here, Ogawa presents us with the novel’s core themes, many of which are concerned with the dichotomies of our lives: the often fine lines between pleasure and pain, passion and torture, excitement and fear. There’s no denying that what Mari is subjected to is morally repugnant, but she is both consenting and welcoming of much of his actions; her sense of worth so low she seems to revel in being demeaned. Indeed, to me the book is primarily a look at loneliness, with both characters using their toxic relationship dynamic to process misplaced guilt and grief from their pasts – but while Mari punishes herself, her suitor punishes others.
Something about Ogawa’s pin-sharp prose just totally draws me in. The characters and setting feel so clear, but not a word goes to waste, and the author’s trademark sinister undertones bubble throughout.
At once an unnerving, thought provoking, shocking, tender, and sad read; love it or hate it, you won’t forget Hotel Iris in a hurry.