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Beth Reads: Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills

kazuoishiguro_apaleviewofhillsLast night, I finished reading A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, and I want to write about it while my mind is still churning it all over. Note – the book has a plot revelation, and I’m going to discuss it below, so if you’ve not read it, and don’t want it ruined, read this after you read the book.

First, let me say I very much like Ishiguro’s work. I thought The Remains of the Day was brilliant, and almost unparalleled in the subtlety of the writing – the author’s skill at revealing plot points and character traits through showing, not telling, is formidable. I also very much enjoyed Never Let Me Go, and look forward to reading it again one day.

A Pale View of Hills is Ishiguro’s first novel, and it was easy to see it shared much of the same style as his later books; the narrative is quiet, subtle and must be read slowly or you’ll miss something. The story opens on Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in England, reflecting on the suicide of her elder daughter, Keiko, while spending time with her younger daughter, Niki.

The character of Etsuko was largely closed off and failed to provoke much of an emotional or sympathetic response in me. Both in word and deed she seems distant and detached, almost uncaring. The only instances in which I felt her her humanity was revealed were her interactions with her father-in-law, Ogata-san, with whom she appears to share a good-natured, loving and patient relationship. As a reader I expected to read much more about Keiko, the elder daughter who died, but instead, Etsuko has a dream which reminds her of a woman she used to know, and she delves into memory. The memory is of her time in Nagasaki, and of a woman she knew there named Sachiko, who lived in a cottage miraculously spared by the bomb with her young daughter Mariko.

Courtesy of Mariusz Kubik

Courtesy of Mariusz Kubik

The character of Sachiko is so mysterious, so unlikely and so unexplained that you get the feeling she isn’t really there. Her responses and reactions to conversation and occurrences are jarring and strange, and she treats Mariko like a stranger or an alien, sometimes seeming as if she sees her for the first time. Occasionally it seems as though Sachiko disliked and resented her own daughter for existing.

In her recounting her friendship with Sachiko, there is no explanation as to why Etsuko is actually friends with the woman. From her comfortable British home years later, Etsuko’s memories of Sachiko seem to waver between distant, accepting observation, and dismay at the woman’s poor mothering. This seems particularly disturbing to Etsuko as she is at the time pregnant with her first child (Keiko, who would later die, in England, by her own hand).

Etsuko remembers Sachiko’s desperate aimlessness. An American man, identified only as Frank, has offered to take Sachiko and Mariko to America, and while the little girl is obviously made miserable by the idea of both America and Frank, Sachiko is determined. In a rare moment of candor, she stops pretending, and Sachiko bitterly and bluntly tells Etsuko that she has no choice, no other options, and nothing keeping her in Nagasaki.

Mariko is clearly a very unhappy little girl, withdrawn and strange, finding joy only in her kittens and the occasional attention her mother gives her. Sachiko leaves her alone frequently, and laughs at Etsuko’s concern, dismissing the worry with a wave of her hand. She makes emphatic, frequent mention of her devotion to her daughter, her fierce protection of her daughter, and her insistence on always putting her daughter first, while her actions consistently prove the opposite to be true.

On the night before Sachiko leaves Nagasaki to go to America, Mariko pleads with her mother to keep her promise of allowing Mariko to bring the kittens with her. Sachiko’s response is to admonish Mariko that the kittens are only animals, no more, and that she mustn’t develop foolish attachments to creatures. She then takes the crate of kittens from Mariko and drowns them in the river while Mariko and Etsuko watch.

At this point in the narrative I was angry because I felt sure that Etsuko, that ANY compassionate onlooker, whether or not they were polite and Japanese, would have spoken up, protested, saved the kittens and saved the little girl from that horror. I found it unbelievable that Etsuko would stand by and allow that to happen. Mariko, presumably distraught, runs away and hides by the river bank.

The passivity begins to make more sense in the next scene, as Etsuko and Sachiko return to the cottage, and Etsuko takes the lantern to go and find Mariko. When she finds the little girl huddled at the river bank in misery, the narrative abruptly – and startlingly, I had to go back three times – changes from third person to first person, and while there is no doubt it is Etsuko who has left with the lantern to find Mariko, she speaks to her as her own daughter, telling her to be brave, that tomorrow they are leaving to America, that if it’s terrible they can come back to Japan, but that Frank will treat them well.

After a moment of stunned blinking, it began to make sense. Etsuko, in the present (not flashback) day makes reference to Niki and Keiko being half-sisters, with different fathers. More blinking, and it became clear that Etsuko’s memory of Sachiko and Mariko is really her own memory of her raising Keiko in Nagasaki – before the moved to Britain to be with her new husband. Whether through exhaustion, misery at an unhappy marriage, depression or other, Etsuko remembers the terrible mother she was to her first-born daughter, and now, in the present-day, that Keiko has never recovered, and in fact taken her own life, the only way she can begin to remember without being entirely overwhelmed by grief, guilt and shame, is to detachedly remember through a third-person filter.

That’s my interpretation, and I’m still not 100% sure I’m right. Ishiguro writes with such subtle nuance, such importance in minute detail, that it can be easy to miss something.

Regardless, the story is one of loss and guilt. While the bulk of the book can be read as detached observation – reflecting the (lack of) emotion in its characters – the devastation of the realization at the end comes like a physical blow, and makes the reader close his/her eyes against all the pages that went before, as we come to recognize the truth.

I think Ishiguro had not polished his craft so well in this first novel; some of the timelines feel clumsy and confusing, and (I rarely say this) I wish he had made the book just a bit longer to develop the characters’ natures in more depth.

That said, it’s a fascinating story and a strong start to the skill of Ishiguro’s work.

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