“Memory, I realize, can be an unrealizable thing; often it is heavily colored by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.” (156)
The passage above offers a clue to the enchanting, silent mystery of Kazuo Ishiguro’s slim, first novel A Pale View of the Hills. This book captivated me with its simplicity and quiet voice. Within its pages there lives an erie oddness because much remains unsaid and isn’t written on the pages. This is a story of memory and loss told by a potentially unreliable narrator and the truth of the story’s circumstances is revealed only in the reader’s imaginings.
Within its first few pages we find ourselves in the mind of the first person narrator, Etsuko, a Japanese expatriate living in England. We learn that her first daughter, Keiko, fully Japanese and born from Etsuko’s first husband, Jiro, has recently killed herself. Etsuko’s second daughter, Nikki, mixed and born of her second husband in England is visiting to comfort her mother. Little is said of what may have prompted Keiko’s suicide, nor is anything said of what caused Etsuko to leave her first husband, nor is her second husband ever mentioned once. These pieces of the puzzle of Etsuko’s life are realities that exist but unexplored in the pages of A Pale View of the Hills and their omission heightens the mood of mystery within the text.
The story in these is focused not on Etsuko’s present loss, but on her recollections of the years she lived in Nagasaki shortly after the war. When she was pregnant with Keiko Etsuko had befriended a woman named Sachiko who recently moved to Nagasaki from Tokyo. Sachiko’s life is full of mystery, but she is grateful for Etsuko’s friendship. Sachiko’s daughter Mariko exhibits signs of post traumatic stress, often wandering in the night and speaking of a woman who is never truly there. Sachiko was once a wealthy woman in Tokyo, but the war destroyed much of her influence and now her and Mariko live in a modest hut and pleads for Etsuko’s help in finding a job in a noodle shop.
Many of the themes explored weigh upon loss and discomfort with cultural change. There are many reflections on the city rising from the rubble that was destroyed by the bomb and several of the characters work in professions below their pre-war social stature. The developing roles of women in a largely male dominated culture causes much discomfort for the male characters and the new generation’s perspective on the totalitarian war-time regime causes distress in the older generation. From these many conversational reflections expressed through Etsuko’s memories of her life during the post-war Nagasaki the reader is presented with a cultural landscape that provides a rich perspective on a challenging and unique historical period.
The setting and backstory to A Pale View of the Hills are only a sliver of the novel’s worth. As I discussed above, there is an odd mystery to the book that is only revealed through the muddy recollections of our narrator. The story of Sachiko and Etsuko’s friendship is clearly more than it seems. The two have two many similarities and it is possible that Etsuko may be confusing some of her memories, displacing herself in Sachiko’s place or vice versa. Sachiko, like Etsuko has a troubled daughte. Sachiko desires to escape Japan and move to America whereas we know that Etsuko has moved to England at some later point in her life. Sachiko often tells the pregnant Etsuko that she will make a fine mother and both woman claim to be motivated to do what is best for their daughters, but it is clear that the elder Etsuko has regrets and the reader can see that both women’s choices are primarily motivated by self-preservation in ways that may cause greater harm to their daughters than they could imagine. The novel’s ending is quietly vague in a lovely way that seems to suggest that Etsuko and Sachiko may have been the same woman or at least the qualities of one were misplaced in the other.
This book made it’s way into my hands only by chance. I had read Ishiguro’s famously popular Never Let Me Go several years ago and on that reading I wasn’t very impressed by the quasi sci-fi mysterious plot twist hidden within the pages of that book and I didn’t imagine myself reading Ishiguro again. I found A Pale View of the Hills a better book. Ishiguro uses many of the same stylistic tricks in both books by creating an oddly mysterious setting with questionably reliable narrators that don’t reveal all the truth of their circumstances. However, I enjoyed A Pale View of the Hills more than my first exposure to Ishiguro because this book managed to say much about historical themes, the identity of womanhood and culture, and personal relationships with memory all within a slim and enchanting concise 185 pages. This book succeeds with its brevity in creating an aura hinting at so much more than is written on the page prompting the imagination of the reader to fill in the blank spaces – and that is truly respectable art.