Book Review: Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa

Hotel Iris
by Yōko Ogawa, Stephen Snyder (Translator)

Publication date: April 7th 2011
Publisher: Vintage (first published 1996)
Pages: 176


A tale of twisted love, from the author of The Diving Pool and The Housekeeper + the Professor.

In a crumbling seaside hotel on the coast of Japan, quiet seventeen-year-old Mari works the front desk as her mother tends to the off-season customers. When one night they are forced to expel a middle-aged man and a prostitute from their room, Mari finds herself drawn to the man’s voice, in what will become the first gesture of a single long seduction. In spite of her provincial surroundings, and her cool but controlling mother, Mari is a sophisticated observer of human desire, and she sees in this man something she has long been looking for.

The man is a proud if threadbare translator living on an island off the coast. A widower, there are whispers around town that he may have murdered his wife. Mari begins to visit him on his island, and he soon initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure, a place in which she finds herself more at ease even than the translator. As Mari’s mother begins to close in on the affair, Mari’s sense of what is suitable and what is desirable are recklessly engaged.

Hotel Iris is a stirring novel about the sometimes violent ways in which we express intimacy and about the untranslatable essence of love.

Source: Goodreads


I devoured this book in one sitting but I still don’t know what I really want to say about this story. It feels slightly strange to say I enjoyed this book with this subject matter.

17 year old Mari works on the reception desk at her mother’s hotel. She hates the job and she’s not a big fan of her mother either – a strict cold old woman who works her daughter to the point of exploitation. Pulled out of high school and with no friends or boyfriend to speak of, Mari feels unloved, ugly and undervalued by her only companion: her mother. She spends everyday alone until one day she runs into a man she recognises as a guest from the hotel.

This man is 50 years older than Mari and after he catches her following him in town, their relationship blossoms and they soon begin to spend more and more time together. Both of them are lonely with nothing much left to live for and the other provides them with something to fill the void. To Mari this man is spellbinding, he provides her with the love she has never known and gives her the courage to be her true self. While society would typically say that this kind of relationship is wrong, Mari can’t truly be said to be a victim here. She craves the translator’s company, she can’t wait to receive his next letter and will do anything to get out of work to meet him. At times this is not an easy read and will be difficult for some readers to stomach, but there’s a curious tenderness between the two of them which kept me hooked.

I was mesmerized by this author’s style; the writing was simple yet captivating. So often I lose interest in a book when there’s too much waffle or when the author seems to be writing just for the sake of it or to fill a page quota. Ogawa writes so simply; there are no ridiculous adjectives or lengthy descriptions and for me that’s perfect.

If I had to find a criticism, it would be that I wanted to see more of Japan. For a book set in the country, I don’t think it was mentioned once. Does it really matter? Probably not! Maybe that’s just me and my slight obsession with going to Japan shining through…

I’ve been won over by Ogawa and will certainly be heading back to the library to find more of her work. Watch this space!

Overall rating: “Hotel Iris” is a novella that’s opened a whole world of literature to me. Translated from Japanese, Ogawa tells a difficult story in a beautifully simply way. It may not be for everyone, and I know that this kind of book is always going to receive mixed reviews due to its tricky subject matter, but the writing style is right up my street and I personally can’t wait to read more.

See my other reviews of books by Yōko Ogawa here:

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