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by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Reviewed by Andy Barnes

Since her debut novel over 20 years ago, Yoko Ogawa has acquired a steadily growing international reputation. Her books have been translated into many European languages, usually to the tune of critical acclaim. All of which adds to the frustration at the lack of English translations for most of her books, and the snail's pace at which they appear. Hotel Iris was published in Japan in 1996 and only now, 14 years later, is it finally available in English. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of Stephen Snyder, it is worth waiting for.

Hotel Iris is an extremely disturbing look into a young woman's unsettling sexuality. Mari, a seventeen year-old who works at her mother's hotel, witnesses an argument between an elderly guest and a prostitute he has hired. Intrigued, she begins following the man. Before long they embark on a torrid sexual affair. The man, a softly spoken Russian translator, has a penchant for sadism, and Mari discovers a liking for his brutality; she sees it as the perfect way to punish her mother, who sees Mari as a perfect little girl. The affair becomes increasingly dangerous for Mari, both in terms of the physical threat to her life, and the potential of discovery by her mother. The arrival of the translator's nephew precipitates a shocking conclusion to the novel.

As you may be able to tell, Hotel Iris won't be everyone's cup of tea. Ogawa describes the sexual acts in explicit detail, and there is something both fascinating and repellent in her dispassionate observations. It is not easy to read about an otherwise kindly seventy year-old man brutalising a schoolgirl, or about the schoolgirl willingly submitting to the abuse even as it nearly kills her. Mari narrates the book in a detached voice, resulting in a disjointed feel between the girl and the sexual violence she is involved in, and creating a vacuum where morality and judgement could otherwise have been. The encounters can only be described as consensual in so far as Mari keeps returning to the translator. Once in his house she has no control about what is done to her, blurring the boundaries that define rape and adult sexual relationships.

Hotel Iris is a deeply disturbing and unsettling observation of sexuality. I have seen the book described as 'eroticism', but I think that misses the point. Despite being largely full of descriptions of sexual acts, it is primarily a distant and detached psychological examination of two lonely individuals. Ogawa's sparse prose, ably translated by Snyder, adds to the disconcerting feel of the novel. As I have said, Hotel Iris won't be for everyone, but if you can stomach the content, it is a beautifully crafted work that takes you deeper into the human psyche than many people would care to delve.