Strange Horizons, June 4, 2018
Reviewed by Mariam Melikadze
“Like Smoke, Like Fire” by Yukimi Ogawa is a work of magical realism that addresses the dangers of holding on to things that have passed. It tells the story of a family, their servants, ghosts and monsters bound together by dark magic. The narrator, who has been stripped of her magical abilities for reasons we will only find out at the end, is a remote relative tasked with serving meals to the head of the household. The old man is withering away, isolated in a cursed annex where he observes his “trap-monster” summoning the ghosts of his wife and child over and over again.
The set-up is an intriguing one, yet I was very confused reading through the first several paragraphs, as not enough clues were provided early on about how the world worked, leaving me disoriented. Although I managed to get by, the rules were never clearly established. How were the ghosts different from monsters? What was the purpose of the void? Other aspects of the piece were difficult to follow due to jumbled storytelling. What had happened between the narrator and her ex-husband that left her without magical abilities? How had she become estranged from her father? I felt like the story had attempted to provide an answer to these questions, but it left me feeling befuddled all the same.
Despite these shortcomings, the writing is truly beautiful. Scenes depicting the head of the household observing his dead wife and child or the narrator noticing the newly-formed peony patterns on the gown of a monster are emotional and eerie. In the end, we realize the narrator’s personal story mirrors that of the head of the household; each holding on to a dark secret and willing to go to great lengths in order to avoid being alone.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the story, especially for the ambiguous ending that left me wondering if the narrator had indeed found a more virtuous path for herself or was falling into the same dark patterns that we had seen with her father and the head of the household.