‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

I kept seeing love for Ogawa’s collection, Revenge, and now I know why. The opening story takes place on “a beautiful Sunday”, in a neat, clean, vanilla-scented bakery. A woman sits waiting to order two strawberry shortcakes for her six-year-old son’s birthday, as she does every year. In the tidy kitchen, a girl is crying, but the woman “could hear nothing, not a word, not a sound.” With a powerful sense of stillness and silence and inaction, this story is haunted by the tragedy, the truly terrible thing, at its heart. The stories in the collection are linked, each one touching on and enriching another to make a potent and spellbinding whole.

Originally published in Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, 1998. Published in English in Zoetrope: All Story, Winter 2011/2012. Collected in Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, Picador, 2013

‘Introduction’ to The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

This is not a standalone short story, but the opening pages of Yoko Ogawa’s cult novel, which depicts a world where an authoritarian government is able to collectively delete items from the mind of its citizens. This intro exists as its own cohesive work, and at the risk of sounding controversial, the rest of the novel feels like an afterthought to this gorgeous, poignant tableau. A young girl comes to learn that her mother is not only immune to the erasures of memory that everyone else in their world experiences, but that she’s been hoarding the ‘deleted’ objects (a bell, perfume, more) in hidden drawers. 

First published by Kodansha, 1994. First English translation by Pantheon/Harvill Secker, 2019

‘The Man Who Sold Braces’ by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

This story is from a linked collection called Revenge. It took me some time to get used to Ogawa’s sensibility, but then I got properly sucked in. This might be the gentlest story in the collection, and it’s basically about a man who runs a torture museum. It feels to me like Ogawa is one of those writers who has unfettered access to the depths of their imagination, which I envy. Some of her images feel plucked out of dreams (tomatoes tumbling onto a road, a tiger dying in a backyard), and the narratives seem to go where they want. I like this particular story because of the relationship between a young guy and his socially noxious uncle. I also like the central idea: that breaking stuff isn’t always bad; it depends what you break.

First published in English in University of Hawai’i Press, Volume 13, Number 1, 2001, and collected in Revenge, Harvill Secker, 2013 – now available as a Vintage Classic, 2020

‘The Diving Pool’ by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

A short story is not a tableau or static image; by definition, it tells us a story. It goes somewhere. But because the short story is defined by its brevity, the most powerful stories often gravitate around a single, dominating image that gives the rest of the events their structure and meaning. Yoko Ogawa’s ‘The Diving Pool’ is a twisted and complex story about Aya, the only girl in a house of orphans who is not an orphan. It traces her relationship with her parents, the orphaned children they raise, and with the house—the Light House—in which they live.

At the same time, the story revolves around a single, recurring image: Aya sitting in the bleachers beside the local pool, watching her foster-brother Jun climb the ten-metre board and dive, again and again. Ogawa is a virtuosic writer, and not all of her fiction is so creepy or emotionally murky, but it is in stories like this, where the possibility of danger or imminent collapse is always present, where every turned page threatens new cruelty, that she really excels.

First published in Zoetrope 11.2, 2007. Collected in The Diving Pool, Picador, 2008