A review of The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada

Reviewed by Óscar Molina V.

The Hole
by Hiroko Oyamada
New Directions
Paperback, October 6, 2020, ISBN: 9780811228879, $12.95usd, 112 pages

Fear and curiosity oscillate in The Hole, a deceptively simple short novel about a young woman, Asa, who has to leave the city to live in a rural town where Muneaki, her husband, has been transferred to a local branch office. The town has no name, but it has a riverbank covered in dense grass like the one in the cover—an enigmatic image of a grown, disheveled lawn that causes as much placidity as unease. Muneaki was born and raised in this quiet town. His parents still live here, too.

When Tomiko, Muneaki’s mother, hears the news about the transfer, she invites the young couple to live in the house next to hers, which has just been vacated. The offer is irrefutable: Muneaki and Asa won’t pay rent and that suits them perfectly. Asa has just quit her temp job to accompany her husband and no longer has an income. In her new town, she also has nothing else to do rather than taking naps, shrouded by the omnipresent cries of the cicadas, and walking through the riverbank garden to get to the only store available.

This might seem like another predictable tale about how the bourgeois people of the city don’t know how to adapt to a small town, but the author, Japanese writer Hiroko Oyamada, manages to turn The Hole into a surreal and fantastical story that is as intense as a dream and intoxicating as a hallucination. This is Oyamada’s second novel to be translated into English by David Boyd. The first one was The Factory, published by New Directions in 2019.

Are there any women in this century who are willing to make that kind of sacrifice? To exchange their professional independence for the apparent comforting role of a housewife? During her first days in town, Asa seems comfortable with spending most of her day alone and locked up. But as the days go by, she begins to doubt that the step she has just taken was wise: “We were two different people: the me who had to work all day to make ends meet, and the me who had nothing to do after lunch except waste time until making dinner in the evening” (p. 22). 

Originally published in 2014 in Japan, Oyamada’s novel sets out her own exploration of the still prevailing topic of reductionist roles for women, especially in a conservative society like Japan’s. However, Oyamada, who won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize with this novel, is not interested in immersing her character in a self-pitying monotony. That is why she involves Asa in a plot of mysterious overtones, written with a refined and detailed style—one of the author’s successes. One day, on her way to the only 7-Eleven in town to do her mother-in-law a favor, Asa finds herself facing an animal she has never seen before: “It had wide shoulders, slender and muscular thighs, but from the knees down, its legs were as thin as sticks. The animal was covered in black fur and had a long tail and rounded ears” (30).

Asa’s curiosity, quenched by excessive free time, is rekindled by the encounter with this creature. She decides to follow the animal into the riverbank field and suddenly loses sight of him and falls into one of the many holes on the ground. Asa fits perfectly in the hole where she has fallen— as if it had been made for her. Another day the animal comes unexpectedly to her mother in law’s yard. Asa follows the creature, it escapes again, but at the end of the road she meets her brother-in-law, a strange man, whom no one had told her about.

Her brother-in-law identifies himself as a hikikomori, someone who isolates himself in his room and avoids all social contact. He lives in a shed behind his parents’ house, going out from time to time, mostly to play with the neighbor’s son or to go to the riverbank.  With is ‘childish’ attitude, he is the opposite of Asa’s husband, a man who has a full-time job and a fiancée. He is the ‘rebel’ of the family, the one that reminds Asa that not following society’s mandates is also an option. “Everyone else graduates. They grow up and move on. They stop playing here, stop coming to read comics at the store. I’m the only one who’s in it for the long haul” (70).

But does Asa’s brother-in-law really exist? How is it that in all these years not even her husband had told her about him? Is he as real as the ubiquitous and loud crying of the cicadas or is he just a feverish invention of a desperate and bored woman in the middle of a blazing summer? Oyamada writes, “Who do you think you are? Alice in Wonderland? You thought you’d follow a white rabbit down a hole and find yourself at the start of some big adventure? Is that what you thought would happen?” (61).

Yes. Maybe that was Asa’s unconscious aspiration when she first entered that green field full of holes in which children sometimes hide. Or maybe Asa truly wants to be the heroine of a different narrative. Towards the end of the novel, Asa sees herself in a mirror. To her amazement, she is already beginning to resemble her mother-in-law, a woman who is “always putting someone else first.” For Asa, as well as for the readers, this existential hole she has fallen into can be either an unbearable trap or a fertile field in which to put down roots.

About the reviewer: Óscar Molina V. is an Ecuadorian multimedia journalist. He holds an M.A. in Literary Creation from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona (Spain), and he is currently a candidate for an M.A. in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. (Twitter: @OscarMolinaV_)