Author: Yoko Ogawa, Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Picador, 2008

Best eBook Deal: MobiPocket

A short collection of three novellas, The Diving Pool presents some excellent fiction, although it never strays to far from the New Yorker mold. All three stories have an eerie and haunting quality to them that adds a palpable atmosphere to excellent character studies.

It’s difficult with translations to judge the source of great language. How much does the translator aid or hinder the author’s original intent? In this case the writing feels as natural as if it had originated in English, and that is likely a sign of a very compatible author translator pairing. The prose is fluid and beautiful and the narration balanced and natural. Ogawa’s instincts to utilize crisp yet sparse description reminds me of many of the great masters of short fiction without ever feeling copy-cat. From the titular first story:

The brilliant sunlight made the shadowy places seem fresh and clean and the objects in them–a tricycle, a broken flowerpot, every leaf and weed–stood out vividly. Cases of bottles waiting to be recycled and an empty box with a picture of asparagus were piled by the kitchen door.

The characterization and dialogue are handled as gracefully as the descriptions. Ogawa seems to recognize her gift for writing complex characters in a relatively short space, and wisely plays to her strength. None of these novellas are all that long (roughly 55 pages apiece) yet they each accomplish quite a bit. The characters do most of the work, with the narration just slightly taking a back seat, though not so far that the characterization feels used as a crutch–the writing is remarkably balanced. For instance, when the no-armed, one-legged manager from “Dormitory” says the following about his physical deterioration that is matched by the crumbling building around him:

“I’ll never get over it.” His tone was so matter-of-fact that I didn’t understand at first. “It will keep getting worse. It’s an irreversible condition, like late-stage cancer or muscular dystrophy. But in my case it’s simpler. I’ve been living all these years in this unnatural body, and now it’s just wearing out. It’s like the rotten orange in the crate that ruins all the good fruit around it. At this point it seems to be my ribs–they’re caving in on my heart and my lungs.”

This could easily have come across as heavy-handed and unnatural–indeed it might even more so now that I’ve yanked it out of context. Yet it is complex and important, and Ogawa nests this passage (which may or may not also be a confession of murder, further adding to the intricacy) so artfully within the physical space of the story that it feels quite necessary for the story’s effectiveness and beauty.

All in all this is an excellent, if short, collection of three stories, and anyone interested in short fiction will certainly enjoy them. This is not a book that takes any risks or tries to do anything new with convention. But even the oldest formulas can create pleasurable results.

Similar suggestions: Close Range: Wyoming Stories (Proulx), Where I’m Calling From (Carver), Twilight of the Superheroes (Eisenberg)