A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

19 January, 2011

You all know how much I love Kazuo Ishiguro, right? Especially The Remains of the Day which is a sublime novel of repressed emotions and mistaken notions of duty. So I was really looking forward to reading A Pale View of Hills for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4. It’s a well written story which addresses some interesting themes, but can someone tell me what it’s all about??? Because I finished it completely confused with a big question mark hanging over my head.

The cover says it’s ‘a story of betrayal and survival amidst the wasteland of Nagasaki‘. There is a supernatural and almost gothic flavour to Ishiguro’s tale, yet I finished the book with a feeling of ambiguity, almost like when I finished Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. If you’ve read it, you’ll probably understand what I mean. I’m not really sure what happened there.

The story is essentially that of Etsuko, a Japanese widow living in the UK who has just lost her eldest daughter Keiko to suicide. Niki, Keiko’s half-British sister, is visiting from London. As the two bicker and pass the days together, avoiding Keiko’s old room, Etsuko is reminded of post-war Nagasaki when, pregnant with Keiko, she befriends the enigmatic Sachiko and her daughter Mariko who lived in a cottage across from her new flat.

The tale is a collage of Etsuko’s life in Britain after her daughter’s suicide, her earlier home life in Japan, with her first husband Jiro and her father-in-law who is visiting, and her strange, fragile friendship with Sachiko. Ishiguro brilliantly conveys the tension and the strict patriarchal family life where the husband is the king of his domain. And Sachiko is sufficiently selfish with an agenda of her own to better her life abroad. And you feel sorry for Mariko, unsure about Sachiko’s love for her, and traumatised by the war. I liked Ishiguro’s treatment of contemporary British life shown through Niki, yet there seems to be a real absence of companionship and familial love in this novel.

In some ways I was reminded of the translations of Tanizaki and Endo which I have been reading the last few years. It’s as if Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki but brought up in the UK since he was a child and writes in English, is trying to write a novel as though it is written by a Japanese writer and translated into English. It has that same sparseness and abruptness that we have all become familiar with. It’s very different from the rich and beautiful prose of The Remains of the Day and I was rather surprised by it. In some ways Ishiguro has created THE Japanese novel but the sharp contrast of the chapters based on Etsuko’s later life in England (which I rather liked) plus the gothic/supernatural element in the story lifts it from what is expected.

The ending which meshed Etsuko’s earlier memories with her present circumstances reveals the unreliability of the main character. Who is the story really about? Did Sachiko really exist? I’m no longer sure. Ishiguro leaves a lot to your imagination (for instance we never find out how Etsuko came to leave Japan) and makes you want to re-read the book again just to check whether you have missed anything. Come to think of it, it’s quite a spectacular book, if not something I expected.

I’m currently half way through Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash which I’m finding enchanting and quite different to what I expected as well. Can you see I’m trying to squeeze in one final book for this challenge which ends on January 31st?

15 Responses to “A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. Steph Says:

    Great review! I think this is the Ishiguro novel that I’m most excited to read in his back catalog… I just think the premise and the open-endedness of it all really appeals to me.

  2. itoeri Says:

    remember that i felt like wondering in a haze while reading it, which must have been like 18 years ago so and sadly too vague now to discuss in details… but i understand what you mean by his writing. although the narative is in English, i felt like reading Japanese. significant sense of alienation. i felt this sense in all his novels i have read.

  3. mee Says:

    Sounds like the time when I read When We Were Orphans. I had the big “HUH?” at the end 😛

  4. Mystica Says:

    I was not enraptured with Never let me go but this review has got me interested again. This is a book I will be able to find here.

  5. Iris Says:

    I have not read this and so cannot contribute anything, but I really like that you admit that you were left with a big questionmark. I often hesitate to post about books that I feel I did not really get.

  6. Oh, I know that feeling. It’s unsettling. But it’s interesting that, after you started putting your thoughts down and asking all those questions, you’ve reached the conclusion that it’s a spectacular book after all. Maybe we get too caught up in trying to figure out the answers!

  7. Birdie Says:

    What a lovely review. This one is definitely going on my list!

  8. Aarti Says:

    Ooh, what a fabulous cover for this book. Like Iris, I like that you said you ended this book on an unsure note. That happens to me more than I’d like to admit 😉

  9. chasing bawa Says:

    Steph: It’s definitely open-ended and makes you want to re-read it just to clarify things.

    itoeri: Exactly, you do get a very strong sense of alienation, especially in this novel.

    mee: I read When We Were Orphans years ago but can’t recall the ending. Maybe because it was ???

    Mystica: I think Never Let Me Go was probably the least favourite of Ishiguro’s novels I’ve read so far too. But Remains of the Day is still my favourite.

    Iris: Sometimes it makes for great discussion when you feel this way. I love hearing how other people find novels because a lot of the time the reactions are different to mine. But yes, I agree it’s not easy to write about.

    BuriedInPrint: Ha ha, true. Maybe it’s not meant to be so complicated either;P

    Birdie: Pleasure:)

    Aarti: You’re not alone;P

  10. That’s a very interesting thought: Ishiguro trying to write A Pale View of Hills as if the book was written by a Japanese writer & translated into English!

    I think this was the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro I read and I absolutely loved it. But it was long ago and reading your thoughts on the book it seems to me it has been *too* long, since I have forgotten a lot. Maybe I can squeeze it in again sometime this year. 😉

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hopefully:) I still haven’t read The Unconsoled and Nocturnes so looking forward to them. Have you read them? From the books I’ve read so far, it seems as though Ishiguro can switch styles and still tell a good story. That’s an intriguing aspect of a good writer.

      • Gnoe Says:

        Those are exactly the two books by Ishiguro I *haven’t* read yet. 😉

        Will be reading along Bolano’s ‘2666’ next month with Leeswammes because it has been lying on my shelf ever since Ishiguro said it was the best book of 2009. Better get on with it. 🙂

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