(Picador, 176 pp., $14)
Be warned: side effects of reading Yoko Ogawa’s magnificently macabre Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales may include sleeplessness, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Even the most sensitive reader’s cardiac issues, however, will not compare to those of one of the characters—a young woman whose heart is located on her chest, not in it. She may be the strangest inhabitant of Ms. Ogawa’s sinister world, but everybody else provokes at least as much discomfort as her condition.
Ms. Ogawa, who has published numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, is the Japanese master of dread. In each of these loosely connected stories, she demonstrates an acute sense of when the reader’s guard has dropped, sprinkling her writing with disturbing and unexpected twists. Often, she does not narrate these horrors as they happen. We hear about a child’s slow suffocation in a refrigerator through the accounts of other characters after the fact. (His mother remarks, “He had curled up in an ingenious fashion to fit between the shelves and the egg box, with his legs carefully folded and his face tucked between his knees.”) That the action takes place offstage makes the imagination run wild.
Ms. Ogawa writes in a flat, unaffected voice, which contrasts with her diverse range of characters. (They include figures as disparate as an adulterous male doctor and a heartbroken teenage hairdresser.) Her unchanging style might be considered a weakness in a different collection, but Ms. Ogawa’s consistency ultimately serves to reinforce the unnerving reality and morbid mystery in which all of her characters are embroiled. They are different, and yet all the same, she suggests, disappearing in one story only to reappear in the next with ghostly ease. These tales are not for the faint of heart, but Ms. Ogawa is more “Masque of the Red Death” than she is The Ring. She elevates herself above any limitations of the genre she’s working in. —Zoë Lescaze
Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pp., $23)
Alejandro Zambra’s recently translated third novella, Ways of Going Home, begins and ends with an earthquake. The one that opens the book, in Santiago, Chile, in 1985, causes the unnamed narrator, a boy of 9, to meet a slightly older girl, Claudia. She convinces him to spy on her uncle, who lives next door to him. Augusto Pinochet is in power, and political tensions hover around the edges of the story, just beyond the boy’s comprehension.
The book soon shifts focus to an established novelist, not unlike Mr. Zambra (perhaps the most celebrated Chilean writer since Roberto Bolaño), as he works on composing the story of the young boy that we have just read. “While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing,” he writes from the post-Pinochet present, aware now of the atrocities that surrounded the boy’s—or really, his own—childhood.
Mr. Zambra has a graceful touch, and he glides easily across time, from one brief scene to another, as his writer reunites with Claudia, struggles to understand his parents and their politics, and tries to reconcile with a lover who tells him, “Writing is good for you, it protects you.”
“To read is to cover one’s face,” the writer decides at one point. “And to write is to show it.” Mr. Zambra gives not only a nuanced look at one writer’s life but an impressionistic picture of recent Chilean society. When the second quake arrives a quarter-century later, along with a new election, we’re left to wonder how much either has changed. —Andrew Russeth