2 January 2012

Review 2: A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

"The story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. Retreating into the past, she finds herself reliving one particular hot summer in Nagasaki, when she and her friends struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. But then as she recalls her strange friendship with Sachiko - a wealthy woman reduced to vagrancy - the memories take on a disturbing cast."

A subtle and delicate novel that delights in not telling you the whole story. Intriguing and careful, it will satisfy any fans of Ishiguro but not one for fans of pacy, story-led novels. A character study of sorts which gently winds round thoughts of race, family and memory, familiar themes for Ishiguro.

There are massive spoilers ahead as I don't think you can really discuss this novel without attempting to discuss them, so be warned! I've abandoned my usual format of Story/Characters/Writing as well as it's all wrapped up together and impossible to consider one without the other. If you have read it, please let me know what your conclusions were!

First Line: " Niki, the name we finally gave my youngest daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father."

From a basic point of view, this is the story of a Japanese woman, Etsuko as she reflects back on her life after the suicide of her eldest daughter. Many elements of her life are only hinted at with the focus being on her short friendship with the mysterious Sachiko who moves into the derelict cottage with her daughter Mariko, near to the apartment blocks a young, pregnant Etsuko lives in with her husband. Etsuko tells us about this from her old age in England during a visit from her youngest daughter, Niki. Etsuko befriends her as she moves in and hears of Sachiko's relationship with an American man that means that she is planning on taking her daugher to America, something her rather neglected daughter is clearly unhappy about.

There are many things that are merely touched on, such as a bout of child murders in Nagasaki and a dream that Etsuko has in England about a child on a swing, and I think I would benefit from re-reading this as I was not convinced I had understood it to begin with, although looking online I seem to share the most popular interpretation. Ultimately, to me, it would seem that Sachiko is actually Etsuko and that Mariko never existed and is Etsuko's projection into dealing with Keiko's suicide and the guilt she feels, hence the neglect that Sachiko demonstrates towards Mariko. This is a very simplistic conclusion and there are all sorts of things which I am not sure fit in with this or not - as I've said I need to re-read it and have another think about how everything fits together! There are so many subtle touches such as Etsuko mentioning more than once that Mariko has a piece of rope stuck around her ankle or the way that another character constantly implies that she is depressed. The main clue is the way the narrative jumps from third to first person as Etsuko addresses Mariko that really makes you stop and reconsider whether this is a straight telling of a story or not. I wouldn't want to read novels this challenging all the time but it makes a wonderful change from the plethora of novels out that that really require nothing of you.

Just as a minor aside, Sachiko really reminded me of Ruth from Never Let Me Go despite the obvious differences in settings - that passive aggressive, friend on the surface but actually rather undermining unhealthy relationship. Of course, is Sachiko really is Etsuko then there's far more to it than that and is interested in a whole different way as Etsuko represents herself in the past.

This book actually finishes my mini-project to read everything that Ishiguro has written (almost - I've read all his novels but not his short stories, Nocturnes, yet). This was actually the first novel that he had published but the one that I have read last. It's funny because I can see elements of all of his other books in this one but of course if I had read his novels in the order they were published in I wouldn't have had this experience. I can't decide if I liked this perspective or not. Despite his novels having, for the most part, quite different settings and characters there are definite themes and styles that run through his novels. The unreliable narrator we have obviously considered above, but it is a motif that he uses to some degree in all his novels and really manipulates in such a talented way such as here or in The Unconsoled where the narrator is unreliabel to the point where he cannot remember anything about his life. Readjusting our memories is such a human trait that Ishiguro taps into. Hopefully most of us don't do it to this degree but it is something that is familiar and adds to the unsettling nature of the book.

Cover: All of Ishiguro's novels have been reprinted with similarly themed covers - yellows, oranges and greens with the same layout. I personally like them and feel them well represent the loveliness of the novels inside - I also like having them all next to each on my bookcase matching!

Try it if you liked: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes or other work by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Summary: Probably not my favourite of his novels but this is only down to his skill in creating even more wonderful novels rather than any particular fault in this one. Beautifully written and enigmatic, a must-read for fans of his more popular novels. Subtle and clever - a novel which requires you to really think and concentrate otherwise you will miss the pointers that there is far more to the story than you initially think.


  1. Anna, have you tried Yukio Mishima?

    1. I haven't. Would you recommend him?