‘A Pale View of Hills’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (Review)

My recent reread of When We Were Orphans reminded me that my Kazuo Ishiguro collection wasn’t quite complete as I was missing his first novel, but while I was planning to get myself a copy at some point, ‘some point’ arrived rather sooner than expected.  You see, on a trip to the city last week, we visited ‘the big Dymocks’ (as my daughter calls it!), and not only did I find the book I was missing, there was even a copy without the dull, minimalist modern cover.  Obviously, it was meant to be, so I snatched it up and ended up reading it a few days later – and here’s the review 🙂

A Pale View of Hills was Ishiguro’s first book, originally published in 1982, a short novel drawing on the writer’s roots.  The story is narrated by Etsuko, a Japanese woman who came to England with her second husband, and it begins with an unexpected visit from her younger daughter, Niki.  The two do enjoy their time spent together, but there’s tension in the air, caused by a topic both are reluctant to discuss, the suicide of Niki’s elder sister, Keiko.

Yet this mother-daughter bonding time in the quiet English countryside is merely the frame for the main story.  Before long, we find Etsuko looking back to the early fifties, a time when she was living in Nagasaki, pregnant with Keiko.  During a long, hot summer, she strikes up a short-lived friendship with an older woman called Sachiko, who lives with her daughter, Mariko, in an old cottage not far from Etsuko’s apartment.  The two women are very different, and you sense Etsuko isn’t quite as nonchalant about Sachiko’s lifestyle, and her dating an American, as she appears.  However, that’s not the only thing Etsuko’s worried about, and as the story develops, we sense that there’s something not quite right about her friend and her relationships.

A Pale View of Hills is a beautiful little book in which very little happens, despite frequent hints that it might.  Even though it marks Ishiguro’s literary, the book displays his inimitable style and eye for detail:

In those days, returning to the Nakagawa district still provoked in me mixed emotions of sadness and pleasure.  It is a hilly area, and climbing again those steep narrow streets between the clusters of houses never failed to fill me with a deep sense of loss.  Though not a place I visited on casual impulse, I was unable to stay away for long.
p.23 (Faber and Faber, 2005)

In the modern strand, Etsuko tries her best to bond with Niki, a slightly spiky character, all the while thinking back to a pivotal time in her own life.  When she’s reminded of the past by a chance sighting of a girl on a swing, her dreams take her back in time, refusing to allow her any rest.

In truth, though, Etsuko is an onlooker in the main tale.  The focus here is on Sachiko, and her determination to get out of Japan despite knowing her American partner isn’t to be trusted.  Mariko, an angry, almost feral child, is obviously wounded by Sachiko’s insistence on moving around, clinging to the only thing she has, her kittens.  Realising that the child has issues, Etsuko attempts to get closer, at the same time trying to avoid criticising Sachiko.

In a story of secrets, not much is initially known of Sachiko’s background, and Etsuko’s own past is likewise a mystery.  We know that the man she came to England with was her second husband, yet back in Nagasaki, she’s pregnant with the child of her first husband, Jiro.  So what happened in between?  The writer is rather sparing with details here – with good reason as it turns out…

One of the main themes of A Pale View of Hills is moving on from the past.  In post-war Japan, everyone has their own ghosts, be they dead family members or lost lovers, and as a friend comments, it’s time to move on:

“But that’s all in the past now,” said Mrs Fujiwara.  “We’ve all had to put things behind us.  You too, Etsuko, I remember you were very heartbroken once.  But you managed to carry on.” (p.76)

Of course, that’s much easier said than done.  Ghosts have a habit of coming back to haunt you, and both Etsuko and Sachiko have left a lot of people behind.

The novel is also about moving on in another sense, with regard to a changing society.  Much is made here of the role of women, with a key moment involving a conversation about a woman who insists on voting differently from her husband, and the horror the characters feel on hearing this.  The story also examines the issue of living with, and obeying, in-laws, and even if Etsuko seems quite happy to look after Jiro’s father, Ogata-san, during his extended visit to their apartment, the relationship between Sachiko and her uncle seems to be a different story.

Another interesting sub-plot of the novel concerns Japan facing up to its recent militaristic past (a theme examined in more depth in Ishiguro’s next novel, An Artist of the Floating World).  The catalyst here is a magazine article criticising Ogata-san for his actions as an educator before and during the war.  The old man subtly attempts to have Jiro reach out to the writer, an old school friend, to make him apologise, eventually taking matters into his own hands.  It’s obvious from the start that the son is reluctant to intervene, and you suspect that it might be because, deep inside, he agrees with his friend’s take on matters…

As fascinating as these themes are, however, the real beauty of Ishiguro’s novel lies in the wonderfully awkward conversations that pervade it.  On many occasions, we’re presented with gentle probing, the characters polite on the surface, yet persistent and unyielding.  Many readers will begin to feel uncomfortable, wishing they’d just stop, and the pressure often builds slowly until something has to give.  Etsuko herself can often be rather passive-aggressive in her conversations, seemingly wanting to put Niki at ease, yet always going a step or two too far for comfort.

In fact, Etsuko herself is the key to the novel, the prototype for the trademark Ishiguro unreliable narrator.  The whole story is told through her eyes:

It is possible that my memory of these events will have grown hazy with time, that things did not happen in quite the way they come back to me today.  But I remember with some distinctness that eerie spell which seemed to bind the two of us as we stood there in the coming darkness looking towards that shape further down the bank. (p.41)

This is one of many professions in which she stresses how she’s trying to tell it all as it was, but the further the story goes, the less the reader will be inclined to take her words at face value.  There are far too many omissions, too many tangents, and it doesn’t take long before a feeling that all is not as it seems starts to develop…

…but I won’t dwell on that here – I don’t want to spoil the fun 🙂  All I will say is that A Pale View of Hills is an excellent first novel, a debut with all the hallmarks of Ishiguro’s later work.  At times, it passes by smoothly and calmly, but sooner or later, there’s always a cloud on the horizon.  Yes, there’s a storm brewing, but it’s not easy to see where it’s coming from.  If you give it a go, I wonder if you’ll see just where the lightning will hit…

4 thoughts on “‘A Pale View of Hills’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (Review)

  1. An interesting review. One of the dangers here I think is attributing much more meaning to the story that is actually there. As you know, I am sure, Ishiguro borrows much here of that Japanese literary tradition which says “hint and suggest, hint and suggest”, delivering nothing of essence or nothing meaningful anyway.


    1. Diana – Hmm. Ishiguro may borrow from J-Lit, but he’s definitely intending to say much more than meets the eye in my opinion…


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