Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Diving Pool

(January 2014)

First off, here’s the obligatory plug for my thoughts on Revenge, the other of Ogawa’s books I’ve written about here, and I’m delighted to report that The Diving Pool is every bit as unpleasant.

That’s entirely intentional, of course, and so is exactly what it’s meant to be. It’s not quite as viscerally gut-churning as Revenge (there’s nothing like the incident with the tweezers, thank god), but in its own way it’s just as queasily off-kilter. The entire book is suffused with this lightly-scented fug of asphyxiating wrongness, where events are never absolutely awful but always just unbalanced enough to make you worry that something truly ghastly is just around the corner. This constant tension is, in many ways, even worse than any flat-out gore or violence could ever be. At every turn humanity and humour lie disconcertingly interleaved with melancholy and tragedy:

It occurred to me that he was young to have lost so many important things: his chicken, his girl, his father.

It’s a collection of three novellas, taking its name from the first. ‘The Diving Pool’ gives us a narrator whose religious parents run a home for foster children, and who develops an unrequited yearning for one of her step-brothers and a parallel need to meet out psychological cruelty to one of her baby step-sisters. ‘Pregnancy Diary’ is, obviously enough, the diary of a pregnancy. It’s the diary of the mother-to-be’s sister, however, who lives with the expectant parents and is clearly slightly unhinged and totally unreliable, and features the unexpected use of grapefruit jam as an instrument of malevolent retribution, so there’s that. The final story, ‘Dormitory’, sees the narrator helping her cousin move into her old college dormitory and reacquainting herself with its manager who, oh, by the way, has no arms and one leg.

At the risk of spouting off on something I know nothing about, the overarching theme of these three tales seems to be of motherhood gone wrong. Obviously this is most apparent in ‘Pregnancy Diary’ (which won the Auktagawa Prize, apparently), but not just in the figure of the narrator’s pregnant sister. All three narrators are female and all display what I can only describe as significantly flawed maternal instincts. Not, of course, that being female automatically equals being a mother, but each one of them is involved in potentially life-threatening acts towards younger relatives towards whom they notionally have a duty of care. While the narrator of ‘Dormitory’ fails her cousin through a kind of distracted neglect, the other two actively try to poison babies, or at least claim to want to do so.

At the risk of taking the Freudian stuff far enough to earn me an entry in Pseud’s Corner, there’s also a hell of a lot of spunk here. Fig sap, soured cream, jam, honey: all these sticky stuffs make significant appearances in conjunction with the narrators feeding other characters. Would it be out of place to make a bukkake reference? Probably, but it looks like I just have. On a less puerile note, there’s obviously something going on with these usually life-giving substances being used in a manner which is wholly – and this really is the only word for it – perverted. As to what that could be, well, it giveth and it taketh away.

Absent fathers, distant mothers, unhappy children. The horror here isn’t from the grotesque or the shocking or the bloody, it’s from the mundane and the banal and how they only have to be very slightly out of balance to be very wrong indeed.


  1. 'The entire book is suffused with this lightly-scented fug of asphyxiating wrongness...' This is possibly the best description I've ever read in a book review.

    Sounds scarring, which means it's right up my alley.

    1. Thank you, and thanks for commenting. I wouldn't say that scarring was necessarily the best word, though I could certainly see that. It's more subtle than that though. Much more subtle, which in a way is worse :)

  2. Loved your review of this 'ever so slightly creepy and off-balance' book: describes it really well. Glad I met you via Tony's January in Japan and would love to keep up with your thoughts, Japan-related or not, book-related or not.

    1. Thanks, and thanks for stopping by and commenting. The 'making connections' aspect of these events is almost more fun than the reading, so it's nice to see that working out :)