A collection of disturbing stories by one of Japan's foremost contemporary writers, Yoko Ogawa mines the same headspace as Haruki Murakami and Natsuo Karino, with much different results. Whereas Haruki Murakami's protagonist, Boku, is typically a thirty-something, dissatisfied, disconnected, but generally good male, searching for he-knows-not-what, and Natsuo Kirino's violent female protagonists searching for power in the only ways that they know how. Yoko Ogawa's creations are cruel, but only because they can see no other options.
I notice from Crazy Fox's review that I am not the only one to connect Murakami and Ogawa. Crazy Fox suggests, "a few recognizably typical tropes (inexplicable disappearance, for instance), it could almost be read as a homage to or parody of Murakami Haruki. And yet one can't shake the sense that Ogawa is pursuing similar themes of alienation and resentment in a slightly different register here in a way all her own," which I heartily agree with. I disagree, though, that the endings are unconvincing or that the cruelty herein is exaggerated. I think that the characters in this book (Aya, the unnamed part-time worker, and the triple amputee), are desperately reaching out to the world around them, perhaps in the only way that they can. As cheindemer suggests in a review largely identical to Yoko Ogawa's Wikipedia article, "her characters often don't seem to know why they're doing what they are," but this is precisely the point. They don't understand their cruelty. They don't understand why they can't reach out with love, and why their attempts to do so are rebuffed, or meaningless. Instead, they must reach out, cruelly and maliciously, to feel that connection, because perhaps only in this fashion can the devastatingly deep crevasses between us be crossed in these tableaux.
One reviewer, Jack M. Walter, suggests that, "[Yoko] Ogawa is certainly no Natsuo Karino." I certainly agree, and I couldn't be happier. Having read Real World by Karino, I must say that I find the disconnection between individuals that is arguably examined by the latter is much more reasonably considered here. Karino, at least in Real World, suggested that the disconnection between individuals has become so great that people will overlook practically anything in their desire to feel involved. Ogawa, on the other hand, suggests that people will DO practically anything in their desire to feel involved. The difference here is profound and manifest, making Ogawa's work have an immediate and beautiful impact that Karino is still striving for.
The stories in this collection are cruelly beautiful. The aesthetics are disturbingly wonderful. And the characters are chillingly lovable. They are human beings, desperately longing for a connection that they cannot feel. In all, Yoko Ogawa presents a horrible specter of humanity, one that may be all too real.