I recently finished Hotel Iris, a small novel by Yoko Ogawa, a Japanese writer I’d never come across before. The writing was simple and elegant and floated along like a breeze. The finely-drawn heroine, Mari, a teenager who has dropped out of high school, tolerates her lonely existence. She is a big, palpable, existential ache.
At seventeen, she moves about in a small trapped space that all of us have occupied at one time or other in our lives, a time when things weren’t going well for us and no easy solution presented itself. It’s not that Mari is in crisis so much as she is immersed in an ongoing boredom and a sense of being a nobody that she cannot escape. Nothing important happens to her. She is nothing important.
Her life entails working at Hotel Iris, a seaside resort, along with her mother, a woman who offers no warmth or encouragement to her daughter. There are no redeeming qualities about the mother and the scenes with her daughter elicit sympathy for Mari.
One day at the hotel some excitement occurs. A prostitute causes a ruckus in the hallway and the tenant who hired her is asked by Mari’s mother to leave. The voice belongs to an old man and it’s such a commanding, compelling and mesmerizing voice that Mari wonders what it would be like for him to order her around. His voice resonates deeply within her and wakes up her feelings of wanting to be dominated. She cannot get his commanding voice out of her mind, nor does she want to.
The tenant, a sixty-seven year old man, leaves the hotel. He is someone who ekes out a meager living for himself as a Russian translator, and he lives on a nearby island. He and Mari soon begin to see one another, engaging in an SM relationship where he bosses her around, humiliates her, ties her up, makes love to her. He is the one thing in her life that makes sense, and she creates excuse after excuse so that her mother won’t find out where she’s gone and what she’s been doing.
Despite the age difference, Mari and her older gentleman have so much in common. They talk. They enjoy each other’s company. They enjoy sex together. They fill the lonely ache in each other with something good. He loves to dominate her and she wants more than anything to please him. Mari readily accepts her dark passion. She doesn’t feel guilty about it or question it.
The novel is extremely interesting and moves quickly and deftly until the plot begins to wobble when a relative of the old man comes to stay with him for awhile. I get the feeling that Ogawa really had no more to say, but wanted this to be a novel and so she kept writing. Later, the ending feels as if it was quickly written and tacked on to the rest of the book.
It didn’t really matter to me. I am a very forgiving reader as long as the main character engages me, and Mari certainly did just that. A book can have all kinds of problems and I can still dearly love it, just as long as the main character remains fascinating.
In spite of its plot sins, I really loved this book. I loved reading about Mari and following her on her awakening journey.