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The Diving Pool is a collection of three novellas. Each novella is stand-alone, but the protagonists have connecting features: they are all women, all lonely, all observers, as are we.
In the eponymous first novella, The Diving Pool, teenage Aya is our insight into the world Ogawa has created. The only biological child to parents who run an orphanage, Aya develops a sexually-charged obsession with one of the orphans, Jun, who is around the same age as she. The two have grown up together under the "green darkness" of The Light House, their family home, among hoards of other children, the gingko trees and the grasses.
As Jun is essentially her foster-brother, there is an undercurrent of dread within the prose: a dread of facing up to the fact that Aya's desires are taboo and will never be fulfilled. Unprepared to deal with her overwhelming emotions, Aya falls willingly into the thrall of Jun's sensuality. Every day she follows him to the school swimming pool and watches him practice his diving forms. Ogawa's descriptions are luscious, yet understated. It is as if Aya is breaking Jun down to mere shapes by describing each muscle and the way the water drops glisten, in a kind of anesthetization of want.
As in Newton's law of motion, for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction: while Aya is in the secret thrall of Jun, she also becomes increasingly abusive towards the youngest orphan at The Light House, two year old Rie. While obviously on an empathetic level any and all child abuse is obviously unconscionable, we as readers experience Aya's thought processes as she goes through both the motions of yearning for Jun and giving into her sickening compulsions to hurt Rie, with the same finely detailed yet numbed narration. "My desires," Aya tells us, "seemed simple and terribly complicated at the same time: to gaze at Jun's wet body and to make Rie cry."
Pregnancy Diary follows The Diving Pool, but though the scenes, circumstances and characters change, the overall tone and mood slip seamlessly from one story to the other. If The Diving Pool is anaesthetised, then Pregnancy Diary is painfully clinical. Our unnamed protagonist lives with her sister and brother-in-law; they appear to have been trying to conceive for at least two years (if basal temperature charts are anything to go by) and within the first few paragraphs her sister's longed-for pregnancy is finally confirmed. However, at her sister and brother-in-law's lack of reaction - lack of outward joy - our protagonist is chased into dissociation, to quote: "I wonder how she broke the news to her husband. I don't really know what they talk about when I'm not around. In fact, I don't really understand couples at all. They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me--a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker."
The story is composed on short snippets of daily life, dated, over nine months. Routine situations, such as meal times, become strangely dislocated from reality as our protagonist's sister suffers severe morning sickness and haunted by phantom scents. Meals become alien, repulsive. Our protagonist is pushed so far from her comfortable normality that she is forced to make and eat dinner alone, out on the lawn, in the dark. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, she finds it difficult to connect the pregnancy controlling their lives with the arrival of an actual baby. Thus she wraps herself in vague knowledge of chromosomes and possible birth defects, as the story takes a slide into the sinister. Food is the most prominent theme in Pregnancy Diary, whether it is the sister's inability to eat any of it for the first three months or the protagonist's obsession with making batch after batch of possibly-toxic grapefruit jam for her sister's greedy mouth and distended belly. It remains ambiguous whether she is truly feeding her sister toxic food, or if it is all a delusion, in Ogawa's bizarre tale of one-sided psychological warfare.
Dormitory is the final novella included. A woman is waiting for her husband to summon her to come to him in Sweden. Meanwhile, she finds herself "rattling around empty days" and begins to add stitch after stitch to a quilt she makes just to pass the time. Her cousin rings her up out of the blue and asks her for a favour, to come and stay with him in the student dormitory she had once lived in several years before. There, perhaps intensified by memories, her perception of reality seems almost too vivid; the mouths of tulips garish, the scent of honey suffocating, sickly. Ogawa's descriptions in Dormitory are lush and grotesque. Nature itself seems to hang in a state of half-rotting, half-blooming. The caretaker, despite having no arms and only one leg, can feed and cook for himself, as well as hold down a job - but only by deforming his body by using his remaining foot as a hand, to stir coffee, write and so on. Because of this constant twisted posture, his heart is being crushed by his distorted rib-cage in a protracted, excruciating death. He expresses a strange, compulsive interest in the individual body parts of able-bodied men, so when her cousin suddenly disappears, she begins to suspect the caretaker of something more sinister.
As much as the male gaze in fiction is often charged with lust, in The Diving Pool the female gaze is charged with dissociation. It is because of this, in a gradual layering of loneliness, obsession and internal pressure, that we can view the lives of Ogawa's characters as if through a keyhole. If we were able to break out of that mesmerising narration to tap them on the shoulder and ask 'Why are you doing this?' it is likely they themselves would not know.
The Diving Pool is suffused with a soft power, letting our eyes gaze in from another perspective into seemingly normal lives, suffused with strange, subconscious compulsions and the undercurrents of dark desires. Somewhere along the way from the mundane to the harrowing, we found ourselves empathising with, and even find ourselves attempting to justify, characters' casually cruel behaviour. The haunting aftertaste of these three novellas can be boiled down to a simple question: if such seemingly normal people have such monstrous distortions, then could anybody?
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Harvill Secker (3 July 2008)