Hotel Iris follows a Japanese girl’s dangerous liaisons with a mysterious older man. Unlike 50 Shades of Grey, with which Ogawa’s novel shares the theme of a young woman’s introduction into a sadomasochistic relationship, the female lead, Mari, is attracted to a man who isn’t handsome, rich, or successful. Mari’s motivations are more intriguing and complex. This makes her relatable to a smaller demographic, but potentially more interesting to a much larger one.
As I fear I’ve made this book sound like hard-core erotica (i.e. word porn,) I should point out that it’s really character-driven literary fiction. There are only a couple of scenes that involve sexual activity—granted those are intense and graphic. However, what readers who stay with this short book are seeking to understand is what about this young woman’s life creates such an attraction for an old man who—in conjunction with the prostitute he hired—gets kicked out of the hotel at which Mari works. Mari’s motivation is far from obvious, and thus the reader is left trying to assemble a puzzle.
The biggest piece of this puzzle may be that Mari’s beloved father passed away years before, leaving her in both the care and employ of her over-protective and cold mother. The Hotel Iris is a small seaside hotel of a middling nature in an area that thrives or dives at the whim of tourists. Mari’s parents had owned the hotel, but now it’s just her mom. Mari, her mother, and one housekeeper share the workload. Mari’s mother believes the customer is always right, but she also has questionable morals in dealing with customers (i.e. if she can get away with cheating them, she will.)
In addition to trying to figure out what drives Mari, the reader also wants to learn whether the girl will make it through alright. The man she is having a dalliance with, who we know as “the translator” because he translates from Russian to Japanese and vice versa, is painted as an unsavory character. But the reader doesn’t know whether he’s a mostly harmless pervert or a killer with a cabin on a remote and scantly-populated island. He has dark appetites, but how tight his grasp on reality is remains uncertain.
I found this book to be highly readable. It’s short, well-written, and keeps the reader questioning. The Japanese penchant for grotesquerie is an unabashed feature of the book. I’d recommend it… just not for your church’s book club.