In A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro weaves a sad and haunting tale that demonstrates how inextricably our pasts and presents are intertwined, no matter how much physical distance we manage to put between them. After the suicide of her daughter, Etsuko recalls her life in Nagasaki in the years following the war and her tentative friendship with the enigmatic Sachiko. Like most of Ishiguro’s works, it is long on character and complex relationships and short on plot and action. Still, the story is told in such a gentle and coaxing manner that the slow pace of the journey seems natural. It simply progresses in the same meandering way that life does. Now living in England, Etsuko’s memories seem to be the bridge between past and present, but almost every step only adds more questions and deepens the mystery. There is a secret at work, always hinted at and never revealed, which draws you along with the promise of another clue, another piece of the puzzle. And yet, at every turn, you begin to wonder which mystery you are trying to solve ““ the cause of Etsuko’s daughter’s suicide or the connection with Sachiko and her own troubled daughter?
A Pale View of Hills was Ishiguro’s first novel, and it exhibits many of the qualities he went on to expand and hone to a fine point in his later works (my favorite of which was The Unconsoled, a simultaneously maddening and stunningly brilliant read). In this book, his style and use of language leaves you with the impression that it is floating. It carries you along almost effortlessly, except it is deeper than that and while it may fool you at first into thinking it is light like air, there is a stronger base note, an undercurrent that runs far below the surface. It is thick and almost viscous, more akin to the currents of a deep, deep river. And whereas with air you can exert some control, the current takes you where it will. Given the centrality of the river near Sachiko’s cottage in Nagasaki and the pervasive references to water throughout the book, there is no more appropriate metaphor. I have nothing but respect for an author that can use the tone and flow of language to convey imagery so central to the story.
On thing I have noticed about Ishiguro is that he never gives you the whole story. A Pale View of Hills is no exception. He only ever gives you the shell of a story and many pieces with which to fill those holes, but which pieces you choose to populate them with makes it your story, a more personal sort of affair. Ishiguro, more than most, understands that the writer tells the story they need to tell and the reader hears the story they need to hear and they are seldom, if ever, the same thing. Like The Unconsoled, now that I have finished the book, I want to go back and reread it. There is something about it that makes you want to seek out the intentionally and carefully misplaced and missing pieces and find the hidden and subtle details.
He does not give us the option of feeling entirely satisfied or settled at the end. You’ll discover that I am fond of this. Don’t get me wrong, I love a quick read with a “proper” ending (“The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished, this is the definition of fiction,” to borrow from our dear Mr. Wilde), but this sense of realistic continuity and the impression that life continues off the page–well, it does. Our lives, despite the attempts of novelizing biographers, are not summed up in neat segments. Life is messy and subjective and all the events overlap. There is little that is linear and structured. And we are not one thing or another, but everything and.
Duality and Plurality of Character
In my limited reading of Ishiguro’s works, I have noticed that he seems to find (as do I, which is probably one of the reasons I enjoy him so much) that dissecting and/or portraying a character is most effectively accomplished by “cloning” that character and populating an entire book with people who, in essence, are all iterations of that one person. Of course, it is only in hindsight that you can see this and perhaps that is what makes me want to reread his books, to see what I missed, what was staring me in the face that I failed to recognize.
Not only does this lend itself to the dreamlike atmosphere that seems to surround his narratives, it also appears to be responsible for the impression of layers upon layers that punctuates every conversational exchange, every soliloquy and internal monologue. It cements the mystery and gives you a definite sense of chasing after something real, of needing to get to the bottom of things. Only, of course, you can’t get to the bottom. You see what his characters let you see, and his characters are not always the most self-aware of creatures. On the contrary, they too seem trapped by their own layers. True connection is elusive and I think that sense of detachment may be hard for some readers–especially those who want to relate personally with their characters. With Etsuko and Sachiko and Mariko, and even with Etsuko’s remaining daughter, we are always on the outside looking in. Yet, even that keeps us reading, because we feel their desperation to connect and inability to do so. Etsuko’s strained and confusing relationship with Sachiko, Mariko’s odd behavior, Keiko’s suicide ““ all of these take place somewhere that we have little or no access to. And it is only in the end that we get the key that unlocks it all. And it is this more than anything that drives us back to the story again and again. Will it be different this time? Will I understand? Are there secret connections and thoughts that I will now be able to see?