When my mother discovered that she was pregnant, she sought out adventure movies with babies in them. She especially appreciated movies in which men did everything in their power to protect tiny little girls. Thus, Three Men and a Baby and Willow were on a constant VHS loop in those months before my sister arrived.
When I discovered my own pregnancy, I figured I should seek out “soft” novels that wouldn’t inspire any more bizarre dreams about giving birth to cats or a baby who can already talk. I should finally get around to rereading Pride and Prejudice or maybe try out another Rainbow Rowell book. I figured that now was the time to read about trembling kisses and beach weddings.
And then I started reading the “eleven dark tales” in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.
This collection of interconnected stories, translated by Stephen Snyder, begins softly enough. Families enjoy a sunny afternoon in a town square. Only the abrupt flight of a flock of pigeons is startling in the moment when a woman enters a bakery with hope of ordering a strawberry shortcake for her son… who has been dead for years. No red-eyed ghosts leap from behind the unmanned bakery counter. The woman just waits as the afternoon light wanes and a sense of dread seeps between the rows of pastries and into the next story, which shifts its focus from the grieving mother to the baker in the kitchen.
Each story in Revenge is imbued with that growing dread. Images from everyday life become increasingly unnerving: Tomatoes flood a highway. The carrots from an old woman’s garden are shaped like fingers. A tongue drops out of a lab coat. A singer’s heart beats outside of her chest. Each of the characters in the stories, even the ones who tentatively make friends, are lonely and isolated; danger and death lie in wait for them between the lines of sharp, elegant prose.
I puzzled over the title after I finished reading the final story, a dark meditation that ends with the narrator making a quiet, horrible discovery in an open field. Of all the vulnerable characters navigating this disturbing world, which of them seeks revenge? I considered the nurse whose boyfriend refuses to leave his wife; the old widow doing battle against the feral cats who destroy her garden; the bag maker who plans to murder that singer with the exposed heart. What kind of satisfaction do these victims find in their bloody hands, their misshapen produce, the blank pages of their manuscripts? Well — none. Although the stories thrill, their individual quests for revenge prove hollow, and those characters grow lonelier and more isolated.
Revenge is no “soft” book, and it didn’t soothe the anxieties that come with anticipating the arrival of a new child. It did help me savor the kind of dread that creeps into everyday life. There is a kind of delight in recognizing the glittering horror in a world more often tinged with tedium.