on 13 June 2014
I have read all of Kazuo Ishiguro's other novels/short stories but for some reason this, his debut, I left until last. If you haven't read the book yet please don't read my review as it contains details about the end of the story.
"A Pale View of Hills" is told through protagonist, Etsuko, an aging Japanese woman living in England. Etsuko's troubled daughter, Keiko, has recently committed suicide by hanging. Keiko has a younger half-sister, Niki, who is visiting Etsuko and the story is told through Etsuko's recollections of one Summer in Japan after the second World War.
Etsuko recalls a woman called Sachiko who lived nearby in Japan with a young daughter, Mariko. The dialogue between Etsuko and Sachiko is awkward and stilted and Sachiko, formally a wealthy woman, is patronising to Etsuko. Despite this they form a fragile friendship although it seems that Sachiko is using Etsuko on more than one occasion. Etsuso is pregnant with her first child and is concerned about how she will adapt to motherhood.
The only warmth in the story is the relationship between Etsuko and her Father-in-Law. Her husband is cold and treats her like a servant.
Etsuki mentions several times that three children have been murdered locally, one little girl hung from a tree. Little Mariko is neglected by her mother who has an American lover and is hoping to move to the US. Mariko is left alone for hours and often wanders alone in the dark forest and by the side of a lake. She seems very afraid of Etsuko and confuses her with a mysterious, possibly imaginary, woman who comes at night and tries to take her away.
Hanging is a theme throughout the book and on two occasions Etsuko claims that she had rope caught around her ankle. I wonder if this is a metaphor for the burden of guilt she later carries about her daughter's death. She also mentions that her memories may not be accurate so the reader cannot trust her recollections.
At the end of the book Etsuko recalls yet again looking for Mariko who has run off after her mother brutally drowned her pet kittens. This must have been incredibly distressing for the little girl as some years before she had witnessed a woman drowning a baby. Etsuko is observes the drowning of the kittens but stands by, not intervening. Mariko runs off and it is Etsuko who goes to search for her in the darkness. The end of this scene is particularly eerie and takes place on a bridge. Etsuko is holding what I presume is rope in her hands (again she claims it was caught around her ankle) and frightened Mariko runs away. Prior to this Etsuko had started talking to Mariko as if she herself were her mother and it is here that I got a real feeling of discomfort. Are Etsuko/Sachiko and Mariko/Keiko the same people? Was it Etsuko who neglected her own daughter's needs so badly that she never recovered and killed herself. Is it possible that Etsuko could be the child murderer? Perhaps Etsuko/Saichiko considered murdering her own child so that her lover would be more willing to take her to America/England. Is Etsuko projecting her own story of neglect and cruelty onto the persona of Sachiko as a way of coping with her guilt?
After this scene we return to the present day where the dialogue between Etsuko and Niki becomes as stilted and formal as that of Etsuko and Sachiko. Etsuko adopts Sachiko's habit of using the name of the person she is talking to in absolutely every sentence. The reinforces the notion Etsuko and Sachiko are the same person. We know that Etsuko married again and moved to England with her Western husband and she says that she knew this would make Keiko very unhappy. Mariko was also unhappy at the thought of moving to America with her mother's American boyfriend yet we never find out if they actually make it to the States.
This book has chilled and confused me and I am going to read it again. I fear it will yield more questions than answers. As all Ishiguro's work, it is beautifully written. Reading an interview with Ishiguro I see that even he feels the end of the book is too much of a puzzle. Amazing to think that he wrote such a novel at just age twenty seven.
on 14 November 2002
This is an amazing first novel and it is a good introduction to Ishiguro for readers who haven't read his books before. It is so delicately told from the point of view of a woman who has survived WWII. You are given only brief personal glimpses of her life, yet those glimpses spark an enormous amount of questions revealing her to be a woman of deep complexity. You would expect her to be pondering the life of her daughter Keiko, but she spends most of her time remembering the mysterious woman Sachiko who she knew briefly in Nagasaki. Over the course of reading the novel you begin to understand that this is a way for her to process her emotions over her daughter's death. Pondering the mysteries of a woman she can never understand is preferable to admitting the responsibility for her daughter's suicide. Perhaps she contributed in some way to her death? From her obsession with Sachiko and Sachiko's daughter Mariko we understand that she is possibly drawing parallels between the girls. While this mystery looms in the background you are brought deeply into her observations of Sachiko and her story of a single woman trying to survive independently. Through the entire time Ishiguro is very careful about what is and is not given away. He is a master at telling and not telling. The selection that goes into telling has an impact on the way we interpret what is told. In this way he explores human complexities that few other writers are able to dig into. Our view of Etsuko, like our view of Nagasaki, is blurred and from this not quite clear view we understand that this Japanese woman still has a lot more to tell.
on 17 August 2009
This is such a wonderful book. Ishiguro is a master of atmosphere and subtlety... he doesn't shout and wave his arms when making his points, but only murmurs... you do have to pay attention. This is wonderfully, eerily effective in A Pale View of Hills. I bought this book yesterday and have read it twice already... the first time, as another reviewer mentioned, my hair nearly stood on end when I reached the last dozen pages; the second time I combed through looking for all the clues I hadn't realized were clues the first time (her husband's missing tie, the rope tangled around her sandle, Mariko's frequent fearful retreats, so many things!). Memory is unreliable indeed, and time folds over on itself.
After loving Never Let Me Go so much I was afraid that a debut novel could only be a disappointment, but this is not at all the case here. If you've read any of Ishiguro's other wonderful works, give this one a try as well. Pay attention, it's very much worth it.
To any writer, Kazuo Ishiguro's "A Pale View Of Hills" is a crushing phenomenon - a first novel that instantly enters the lists of the best books ever written. But there it is. Ishiguro's debut was incomparably assured, profound, and wise. More than that, it's a delight to read, enthralling to the last page.
It's one of Ishiguro's "Japanese" books - not only set partly in Japan, like "An Artist of the Floating World," but essentially Japanese in its combination of delicacy and steely strength, its oblique view of life, its devastatingly understated intelligence.
The story is narrated by two women, who are really the same woman: Etsuko Ogata, a young wife and expectant mother in post-war Japan, and Etsuko Sheringham, now middle-aged, remarried and living in Britain. However these Etsukos are very different, so divided by innocence and experience that they are almost separate people.
Both Etsukos are survivors of a recent tragedy. The young Etsuko has lost her fiancée, and much else, in the Nagasaki bombing. The older Etsuko has lost a daughter, Keiko, who has recently committed suicide. The two experiences of grief, loss and guilt are somehow linked in Etsuko's mind by a brief relationship which Etsuko remembers having in Nagasaki with a drifting demimondaine, Suchiko, and her eerie little daughter, Mariko. It is when the two Etsukos, young and old, finally come together that your hair will stand on end.
To reveal the plot would be to spoil things for the reader, because this (like all of Ishiguro's novels) is a mystery - a gripping mystery which the author unravels masterfully and at a perfect pace. But be warned: like all of Ishiguro's novels, this one does not yield its secrets easily.
"A Pale View Of Hills" is one of the most enjoyable books you will ever pick up. The problem comes with trying to put it down.
on 29 April 2011
A Pale View of Hills is Kazuo Ishiguro's debut novel. However, this fact should not sway your decision if you are thinking of reading the book; it is an accomplished piece of work. The story is narrated by the central character Etsuko, who has left post-war Nagasaki and lives alone in England. She was the mother of two daughters but we learn from the novel that her older daughter Keiko has recently taken her own life. Etsuko receives a visit from her other daughter Niki, and it is during this visit that the novel is based. As mother and daughter talk about the loss of Keiko, Etsuko cannot help but lose herself in thought, drifting back to her life in post-war Nagasaki before her daughters were born. The narrative moves effortlessly between the present and the past as Etsuko recalls one particular summer in Nagasaki and the bizarrely brief friendship she experienced with another mother, Sachiko. Through Etsuko's thoughts Ishiguro is able to explore the changing reaction that is happening between the younger and older generations in post-war Nagasaki. There is also mention of the challenges that face the old traditions and the position on the roles of women within Japanese society. When the narrative moves to the present it is interesting to see the contrast of opinion between Etsuko and Niki as Niki finds her lifestyle in London being examined by her mother. The twin themes of identity and memory are prevalent within the novel as each generation questions their predecessors. As to which holds the truth cannot be answered.
on 2 January 2012
Having just finished `A Pale View of Hills' and this being the only Ishiguro novel I've tried, my first impressions of this author are good. The story is told from the point of view of Etsuko, a Japanese widow living in rural England while coming to terms with her daughter Keiko's suicide. The perspective shifts in time, often abruptly, from post-war Japan to her time in England.
His style here is understated, subtle and at times deceptively mundane - I occasionally found myself longing for some devastating event or revelation, however this I think is wholly intentional of the approach, the impact comes from what is not said and what is left to your imagination. There are a number of passages in the book that furnish a sense of unease through the subtly haunting imagery and suggest darker things than are made explicit.
The story deals with themes of gender roles, treatment of children and reliability of memory. The ending is ultimately ambiguous with the reader being left to piece together many elements of the plot that don't add up. This, to my mind is a good thing however readers that appreciate novels where `all the loose ends' are tied up and concrete explanations are given will probably think differently.
on 2 April 2010
Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favourite novelists and I find reading one of his books is a bit like putting on a pair of old shoes that haven't been worn in a while - slightly strange at first while your feet adjust to the contours and feel of them. Once adjusted to his writing style though, he carries you along with tales which hint at hidden secrets kept tantalising just out of reach.
As with some of his other novels, much of the story told in flashback and explores the reliability of memory and the perspective that comes with age. If the past truly is a different country, though, it is doubly so here, set as it is in post-war Nagasaki.
The main protagonist is Etsuko who following the death of her daughter is reminded of a friendship she formed as a young woman in Japan before she moved to England. The book is largely set in a Japan in the throes of post war reconstruction and the Atom bomb is still a recent memory.
While some of the dialogue may seem overly-formal, stilted and lacking naturalism, I take this to be a reflection of the societal norms in Japan at that time. In places, it's almost as if it had been written in the Japanese and re-translated to English.
Throughout the book seems to be nothing more than a middle-aged woman remembering the events of a summer years below from which she is drawing parallels with the obvious future path of her own life. It is only in the last few pages that the extent of the unreliability of memory - and the ability of the mind to consciously or subconsciously construct it's own perspective of events - become, for want of a better word, clear.
This is book which leaves so many loose ends it's hard to know where to begin to sort them out. Paradoxically, it is this lack of clarity which makes the book all the more satisfying. It's as if by leaving the reader with lots of questions, Ishiguro neatly illustrates his point.
on 5 March 2013
During a visit from her younger daughter Niki, and following the recent suicide of her elder daughter Keiko, a Japanese woman, Etsuko, now living in England relives a particularly hot summer in Nagasaki following the war. She concentrates on her brief friendship with a strange woman, Sachiko and her disturbed daughter Mariko. Beyond saying that there is a moment of realization near the end that strikes like a hammer blow, I will not describe the plot any further as the reader needs to draw his/her own conclusions from a clean canvas since the novel is open to many interpretations.
Some may feel Ishiguro fails to satisfy the reader by leaving so many questions unanswered but I enjoyed the ambiguities and derived great pleasure from trying to work out what exactly the author meant to convey and wondering if I were hopelessly wide of the mark as each chapter unfolded.
It is not possible to discuss in any detail the various interpretations that may be inferred from such an unusual story without spoiling the journey for those who have yet to read this intriguing novel
I enjoyed Remains of the Day and Never let Me Go and found this debut novel did not disappoint. In fact, I considered this story to be even more enthralling than most of Ishiguro's other books. It is a powerful, if rather short novel on the great themes of loss and guilt. The writing is very subtle and the book must be read attentively or the reader will miss important plot points.
This is an ideal choice for book club discussion groups as the plot is open to so many possible interpretations and the characters themselves are enigmatic in the extreme.
Read, enjoy and discuss!
A deceptively simple and beautifully written work that had me hooked to the end. Then I found myself poring over other reviews and blogs to see what other readers had made of the story.
It opens with a middle aged Japanese woman living in England, being visited by her younger daughter. There's a great feeling of reserve, greyness, a strange family dynamic, and we want to know more. As they mention the elder daughter's recent suicide, we get the weirdly restrained
"Did you really expect me to be there?" she asked. "At the funeral I mean."
"No, I suppose not. I didn't really think you'd come."
"It did upset me, hearing about her. I almost came."
"I never expected you to come."
Gradually our narrator recalls a period in her early married life, when she was living in Nagasaki shortly after the war and expecting her first child. She strikes up a friendship with Sachiko, a woman who couldn't be more different from herself. For while the narrator is a dutiful middle-class wife, her friend has been brought low by the war, and is living a rough and ready lifestyle, consorting with American Frank with the (doubtful) hope he'll take her back to the States, and paying very little attention to her young daughter Mariko...
Read and enjoy, try to pick up on the clues on the way, then see what you think of it. It's absolutely haunting.
on 25 September 2011
The novel's narrator, Etsuko, is a Japanese woman now living alone in England. As a younger woman she lived in Nagasaki with her first husband Jiro, with whom she had a daughter, Keiko. During the novel we learn that she eventually left Jiro, and married an Englishman with whom she moved to England and had another daughter, Niki. At the start of the novel she is visited by Niki, now an adult, and we learn that Keiko has recently committed suicide. The core of the novel is Etsuko's recollections of her time in Nagasaki whilst she was pregnant with Keiko, and in particular her friendship with a Japanese woman, Sachiko, and her daughter Mariko. Through these recollections we learn a great deal about Sachiko and Mariko, especially about Sachiko's desire to move to America and her concerns about whether such a move will be good or bad for Mariko. There is also considerable focus on Etsuko's recollections of Jiro's father, Ogata, who was a teacher in pre-war Japan, and his regrets that in post-war Japan schools no longer focus on the ideals of Japanese national identity which he emphasised during his own teaching career.
I have read most of Ishiguro's novels but had never previously read this, his first book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it shares common features with many of his later works: it is relatively short; it is written in a terse but elegant way, focusing on the characters and their interactions and avoiding long descriptive sections; its focus is recollections by the central character about her past life, and what we learn from these both about her and about wider human concerns; it develops an atmosphere of mystery and suspense even though there is little tangible action throughout the book; and there is (deliberate?) ambiguity about the conclusions that should be drawn.
In this book the principal ambiguity concerns the interpretation to be placed on the characters of Sachiko and Mariko. Are these real people, or are they a metaphor for Etsuko and Keiko? The latter interpretation potentially makes sense on the basis that Etsuko feels guilty that Keiko's unhappy life and eventual suicide resulted from her enforced move to England: Sachiko's agonising about whether to move to America might be seen as Etsuko's attempt to rationalise her own decision to leave Japan. Ishiguro seems to offer some possible clues that this is the right interpretation: e.g. towards the end of the book Etsuko's narrative about Sachiko and Mariko briefly changes from the third to the first person, as if she has temporarily forgotten that her recollections are supposedly about other people rather than about her own actions.
Sachiko's (Etsuko's?) agonising about whether or not to leave Japan in search of a Westernised life style contrasts with Ogata's nostalgia for a lost Japanese lifestyle based more on traditional values of family and national identity rather than on the American consumerism that attracts Sachiko. By contrast one of the minor characters, Mrs Fujiwara, who lost most of her family when the atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki, has adapted herself to a new life there and appears to be happier than either Ogata or Sachiko. These life choices - is it better to stand out for traditional values or adapt to new ones? And is one sort of life style intrinsically better than others? - might or might not be Ishiguro's central concern in writing the novel: once again there is ambiguity about how to interpret what he has written.
I enjoy Ishiguro's writing, as regards both subject matter and style. At the same time, though, I have found aspects of each of his books unsatisfactory. Somewhat to my surprise, considering that this was his debut novel, I found fewer problems with it than with his later books. My main objection to this book is the somewhat quirky nature of each of the main characters. They all periodically behave strangely, and make strange responses to other characters' comments. For example, Sachiko frequently misunderstands what Etsuko says to her. Whether this is accidental or deliberate isn't usually clear; neither is it clear what it is about her that causes her to misunderstand so often. Sachiko also behaves oddly towards Mariko, sometimes adopting a very casual attitude towards her safety which sits uneasily with her, at other times, seemingly excessive degree of concern. Again, there seems to be no good reason for such inconsistencies. Of course people do behave inconsistently in real life, but there is usually a reason for this, often related to aspects of their life experiences, and in a novel it is usually desirable if this is explained, rather than simply described without comment. Of course, it might be argued that the supposed quirkiness is simply a product of Etsuko's imperfect memory of behaviour that is now far in the past (or, if one adopts the metaphor-based interpretation of the novel, it might result from her difficulty in consistently applying the metaphor). It could also be argued that the quirkiness of the characters contributes to the elements of tension and mystery in the narrative. On balance, though, I found the characters' quirkiness a negative rather than a positive feature of the book, and I felt that Ishiguro could have achieved the same overall results more satisfactorily without this feature of the book.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, perhaps more than any of his later ones. It should be clear from what I have written that this was a book that made me think, and I interpret this as a good indicator of quality. That said, whilst recognising the many merits of Ishiguro's writing, I'm not convinced that he is quite as good as his very high reputation would suggest. I would put him a bit below the very best writers who have produced work during the thirty or so years over which he has been publishing.