by Molly Moore
In the three novellas of The Diving Pool, a word pops up with frequency — ‘sour.’ Sour feelings in guts, sour smells from breast milk, sour words from lonesome landlords. Ogawa is preoccupied by the rot that occurs from the neglected. Uneaten food and waterstained wood rots with time and lack of proper care, just like humans. I’m telling you guys, this is one cheery effing read! Well okay, cheery it is not, but haunting, resonant, and extraordinarily brave it is.
The first novella, the titular “The Diving Pool,” takes us into the mind of a young girl whose parents run a moldy orphanage where it always rains, currently in the throes of a silent obsession with orphaned, kind-hearted, super hot diver Jun. She watches him from behind the bleachers at the school’s pool, admiring his work ethic and the taut muscles it has produced. Meanwhile, this unexpressed desire, compounded by an already thick malaise, spits and spurts out of her in some truly unsettling ways. The second, “Pregnancy Diary,” follows a woman’s pregnancy as seen through the eyes of her younger sister. The sister dutifully takes note of her sister’s wildly swinging moods, love life, and, most significantly, appetite, going from a period of food repulsion in her first few months of baby creation to full-blown food infatuation by her third trimester. While her sister’s whirlwind of a self pulls much of the story’s focus, one has to wonder about the quiet observer doing the notetaking. After all, she is the God of the story — what she sees, we see (and what she sees is pretty bizarre). The final novella, “Dormitory,” strikes a funnier, more genre horror tone, which provides a welcome reprieve from the claustrophobic inner worlds of the first two narrators. Here we find a recently married woman who finds herself increasingly reticent to take the necessary practical steps to meet her husband at their new home in Sweden. Instead, after returning to her college dorm as a favor to her cousin who know attends her alma mater, she spends large swaths of time sitting with the Manager of the dormitory, a triple amputee with a taste for sweet iced tea and flowers that change color.
Ogawa is a hypnotist who uses simple, mostly descriptive language to lead you down the paths of your subconscious until you’ve arrived at the dark, beating emotional truth she wanted you to see for yourself. “This is fine, this is fine, it’s all fine, look at me, I am sooo fine,” I whispered to myself as I read through her stories. “Ha, a beehive, how environmentally conscious. Oh nice, grapefruit jam, sounds tangy!” before I sense more than see a hissing coiled snake in the corner of my vision. A few of the snakes Ogawa preoccupies herself with include the thin membrane that keeps us from acting out cruelty, the suffocating effects of domestication, the power of the mind to create or destroy your tenuous hold on reality, the rot of living life out of the light of love, the instability of other people, the often unconscious allure of self-destruction, the temporary nature of all things, and, most of all, isolation. Very few people have names; the rest are notated by their relation to the narrator — cousin, sister, Manager, brother-in-law, husband — and everyone has a tough time completing the real world tasks of the day, giving the sense that they have at least one foot out the door of the real and into the nowhere. Spooky! As a person who scares easily, I actually find it so very cathartic to read stories that not only effectively capture the reality that produces these anxious themes, but manages to nab the emotion behind it as well. Sour is just as real a flavor as sweet, salty, and umami! (Actually, still kind of skeptical of umami, but that’s perhaps a personal issue.) By seeing it on the page through the eyes of narrators and, by design, the real human author herself, the hold these freaky parts of the world have on me loosens a bit. So thank you, Yoko Ogawa! I guess! Kind of wish this stuff didn’t exist, but hey! Now, who wants a cream puff?