Review: Hotel Iris

I read Hotel Iris because of Jo and Vishy’s reviews, and I wanted to read some more Japanese literature. A couple of years ago I discovered Banana Yoshimoto’s works and she has since become one of my favorite authors, but somehow I never got around to trying other Japanese writers’ works (except for one Murakami). So this is your chance to convince me of that one Japanese book I simply have to read! 🙂

Hotel Iris tells the story of a sadomasochistic relationship between 17-year-old Mari and a significantly older man, only referred to as the translator. She lives with her mother in their seaside hotel, Hotel Iris. Mari’s word is very small and for the most part reduced to the hotel in which she slaves away and  which she hardly ever leaves.  She gets glimpses of the world through the guests, and one night she witnesses a prostitute being thrown out of a room and loudly insulting the guest, an older man who strikes Mari as utterly dignified and entrances her with his commanding voice. She follows him and falls in love with a man who sexually dominates and humiliates her.

Thanks to Jo, I was sufficiently warned about the sado-masochist context but apart from Mari’s age I didn’t really find the topic that disturbing. The real taboo here for me was the relationship between a young inexperienced girl and an older experienced man. Despite the fact that Ogawa depicts the translator as reserved and even somewhat shy in his behaviour toward Mari in public, their sexual relationship reinforces the typical power relations of gender and age. However, Ogawa exclusively depicts this relationship through the eyes of Mari and so we only get one side of the story, and Mari is not prone to reflecting on her life.  And the introduction of the translator’s nephew questions the assumption that Mari is the one who is powerless and dependent on the translator. For all that Ogawa chose such a complex topic, she does not seem to be overly interested in exploring its moral grey areas. Her characters are stripped down to their essentials, as is her prose style. I wouldn’t really recommend this work to people who value complex characters,over everything else, but Ogawa does make up for it with atmosphere. Perhaps mood and characterization go hand in hand here; to achieve such atmospheric writing, you have to create characters that seem to float through the narrative and remain elusive.

I very much enjoyed reading Hotel Iris and Ogawa introduces interesting themes and topics, such as power relations, eroticism and death, violence and beauty. The problem is that she does not make use of them, or where she does it’s kept superficial. I think that a more reflective main character could have done a lot for this novel. Still, it was a very interesting read, it was fascinating how Ogawa manages to create a dreamy atmosphere through a sparse prose style. Which Ogawa work should I turn to next?


Other thoughts:


Vishy’s blog

30 thoughts on “Review: Hotel Iris

  1. I purchased this awhile ago but I havn’t prioritised it. I don’t think that the topuc will worry me, but I have had a flick through it and I am a little bit nervous that the direct writing style might be a little challenging. I am pleased to have read your good review though

  2. Wonderful review, Bina! Glad to know that you enjoyed reading ‘Hotel Iris’ inspite of it being potentially disturbing. I found your comment, that Ogawa creates an interesting atmosphere but doesn’t back it up with complex characters, quite interesting. It made me think. I also liked your comment – “it was fascinating how Ogawa manages to create a dreamy atmosphere through a sparse prose style”. I love Ogawa’s prose style!

    I would recommend Ogawa’s ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ too – it is a story of a beautiful friendship.

    1. Thanks, Vishy! I really love Ogawa’s style as well, and I’m still amazed how powerful sparse porse can be. What do think about the dreamy atmosphere and the characters? I’m really wondering if such an atmosphere isn’t destroyed by complex and realistic characters.

      I really want to read The Housekeeper and the Professor, especially since it deals with memory.

  3. Great review. I think I will read it (maybe purchase with my Book Depository voucher). Disappointing that the characters don’t match the complexity of the themes.
    I haven’t read any Ogawa yet, but I really like Natsuo Kirino’s books (more crime based, but still complex characters and themes).

    1. Hope you’ll enjoy reading Ogawa! Her work is definitely strong on atmpshere rather than character. I haven’t read anything by Natsuo Kirino, will have to check out her works, thanks for the rec 🙂

  4. Glad you finally read the book! 😀 I too like what you said about : “it was fascinating how Ogawa manages to create a dreamy atmosphere through a sparse prose style”. I was reading the book sort of like watching a horror movie and dreading what may come next that I couldn’t stop to enjoy the prose. I think the book is worth a re-read on my part.

    If you appreciate this darker side of Ogawa, I strongly suggest “The Diving Pool” is next. If you like to read a heart warming, sad and quirky story about a forgetful professor relationship with his housekeeper, that will be ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’.

    Welcome to the Ogawa club! 😉

    1. I know, finally! 😉 I definitely want to read more by her, I think I’d like to try both books you mentioned. I rally enjoyed the darkness in this one, but I also love reading about memory.

  5. I’ve been hearing a lot about this book around the blogosphere but I’m just not sure about it. I’m kind of unsure if I will like it or not to be honest!

    1. I think it’s a book that divides readers, some love it, others are disturbed. I’m not really sure whether you’d enjoy it. You could try reading a few pages on amazon 🙂

  6. Hmmm…I’m one of the few who didn’t love The Housekeeper and the Professor, and from your post on Hotel Iris it sounds like Ogawa just might not be an author for me. However, I love Banana Yoshimoto too! And if you’re looking for more contemporary women Japanese authors, I’d highly recommend Translucent Tree by Nobuko Takagi (if you’re not enjoying it at the beginning, keep reading: it gets so good!) and Twinkle, Twinkle by Kaori Ekuni (one of my favourite reads of the year). Unfortunately, both of these authors have only had the one title published in English, but I’m holding on to the hope that I’ll be able to read more of them eventually. 🙂

    If you want to know more, I’ve talked about both on my blog: Translucent Tree and Twinkle, Twinkle

    1. I can see how Ogawa is not for everyone, I’ll have to see what I’ll think of The Housekeeper and the Professor (there’s memory loss involved so I might really enjoy it). But Yoshimoto is the best! 🙂
      Thanks for the recs, Eva! Both books sound really great, I’ll just have to convince my library to acquire them 🙂

  7. I haven’t read anything by Yoko Ogawa (despite hearing such great things about her, and especially about The Housekeeper and The Professor), but for me, one must-read Japanese author is Yukio Mishima. Specifically, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is just simply stunning and chilling and wonderful. If you’ve not tried him, you simply must!

    1. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion sounds really good, I’ll have to look out for it, thanks for the rec 🙂 Hope you’ll enjoy Ogawa’s writing!

  8. It is amazing how Ogawa creates a lovely atmosphere give such a theme; she certainly does a better job than Nabakov in Lolita! I can’t help but compare the two, as young girls are involved. Sure, they’re loved, but they’re too young to be in such a relationship. Everyone loves The Housekeeper and the Professor, if you haven’t read that you must. And, I’m personally reading The Temple of The Golden Pavilion right now for Tanabata’s read along which begins November 29th. It’s too early to say, but I think I’ll love it. What’s not to love about Japanese literature? Even the ‘inappropriate’ topics are fascinating in their hands.

    1. Japanese lit is really fascinating, and I love how these writers don’t seem to shy away from dark and disturbing topics. My library has a pile of Ogawa’s works, but not The housekeeper somehow, weird! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on The Temple of The Golden Pavilion!

  9. I am not sure if this is a book for me, but then as I have said before I want to read it anyway. Apart from having my name in the title, it seems to be one of those authors that you really need to have tried at least once.

    1. You might have to prepare yourself beforehand since their relationship is a bit disturbing, but it’s also very interesting! Hope you give it a try 🙂

  10. Hotel Iris sounds fascinating. How does a 17 year old girl permit herself to be so dominated by her lover, the much older one at that. Going to look this one up next and I hope the cover is as nice as yours.

    Great review and Japanese writers are hitting the vogue now.

    1. I hope you get the edition with the nice cover and enjoy the book! 🙂

      It’s great that japanese literature is popular now, that probably means, more works will get translated.

  11. Great review Bina! I had read Vishy’s review too sometime back and I had thought I must pick this up… Let me try convincing you to read “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro 🙂 The review is on the blog… I think you will really like it. I couldn’t keep it down despite its theme and the pace. It was such a beautiful book!

    1. Heh, no need to convince me, I’ve read never Let me Go a few years ago and absolutely loved it. It’s one of my favorite books. I’m so glad you loved it as well 🙂

      1. Oh yes now I remember you had commented too! Hmm, have you read Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata? Or The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki? Those are my other recommendations 🙂 Again, reviews on the blog…

  12. Great review. This sounds really good. I don’t know why but Japanese lit has never quite appealed to me but I think this one might be a good one to start with!

    1. I hope you’ll try Japanese lit. I’d also recommend Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, I think that would be a great book to ease you into Japanese lit.

  13. All the relationships in my work are same-age, but I’m happy to say that my (young) daughter, whenever she sees a TV show or film–and they’re countless–where the male hero is given a female romantic counterpart half his age, her response is always simple: “Ew!”

    1. Heh, I do hate the cliché of old man and barely legal young woman. But I’m not generally bothered by age differences, if both are old enough and experienced enough to make their own decisions.

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