'Revenge' filled with haunting prose

Monica Rhor / The Associated Press /

“Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales” by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Picador)

They are the scenes of ordinary life: a mother stopping by the neighborhood bakery to purchase two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday, an aspiring writer toiling over a manuscript in a spare apartment, a young woman preparing dinner for her beau, a woman spying on her husband’s mistress.

Yet in Yoko Ogawa’s story collection, “Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales,” those ordinary exteriors are merely brittle shells that crack open to reveal darkness, death and despair. Woven through the 11 interconnected tales is a thread of the grotesque, the macabre, the mournful.

The mother’s errand turns out to be a paean to inconsolable loss. The writer emerges as an unhinged character that evokes both love and pity. The amorous young woman finds herself entwined in both a murder scene and a museum dedicated to torture.

Ogawa, a prolific author whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, laces her stories with gruesome murders, exotic animals and peculiar events. Her language is both spare and searingly precise, crystallizing the details of everyday existence and capturing the unexpected shock of the bizarre.

In these stories, ordinariness is not a mask hiding the morbid and the macabre. In many cases, the ordinary life itself, with its insistent drip of isolation, sameness, sadness and loss, is what pushes the characters to the edge of madness and vengeance.

Ogawa’s haunting prose may not be to everyone’s taste, but readers willing to explore the murkier edges of the human psyche will not be disappointed.