Why is it that every time I read a Japanese author, I feel that the atmosphere they so adeptly evoke is just important as the story? Just a few pages into A Pale View of Hills, I was already creeped out. If you have watched The Ring, you'll know what I mean - there isn't anything especially disturbing, but why are you?
I was also getting confused as more characters were slowly introduced; I was trying to get the jumble of characters sorted out and then there is a juxtaposition of imagery: Etsuko, the middle-aged mother grieving her daughter Keiko's suicide, with her younger daughter Niki. Shift to an earlier time where Etsuko recalls her friendship with the mysterious Sachiko who seems to be indifferent, even callous mother to her very disturbed young daughter, Mariko - who is left to her own devices, insists on having talked with imaginary people.
The story continues shifting between the two stories, present-day and past. We learn of the difficulties of Sachiko who seems well-bred, coming from a reputable family, yet falls into hard times and even desperate relationships with good-for-nothing men. Then there is the story of Etsuko and her Japanese husband, Jiro, who challenges many well-worn Japanese ideas about nationalism and education. But wait, isn't Etsuko now somewhere in Britain? Then you get an image of Etsuko with a rope entangled in her feet, and Mariko running from her, deathly afraid of ropes. Why, why, why?
I let questions like these go, figuring that the confusion would clear itself up soon enough. All the ambiguity was apparently a ploy, I was blindsided! What, what, what!?! WHO THE HECK WAS SPEAKING? Etsuko? Sachiko? Did I miss something? And I started furiously flipping back to previous pages, trying to figure it out.
But it isn't meant to be figured out, as there are so many ways to see it.
I initially found the characters rather one-dimensional. I was also put off with the rather cold manner of speaking which I figured was a problem with translation. But things aren't what they seem! Was Sachiko in fact Etsuko? Why such a startling parallelism in their lives? The chilling disconnect, or selective memory of Etsuko from the realities of her life and her daughter's suicide raises even more questions. Was she suffering from or even schizophrenic? Was she responsible for her daughter's condition? This novel explores the psychological coping mechanisms of how one deals with hurt, pain, and death, while leaving you and me, the reader to fill the gaps in.
I finished this book, absolutely in awe of Ishiguro's storytelling, and with so many questions in my mind. I want to re-read it to understand the nuances of the character shifts. And maybe I can even find an alternate interpretation too. A challenging read which I feel everyone should attempt.
More about this book:
- Wikipedia entry
- From here: Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, was hailed as "a first novel of uncommon delicacy..., an extremely quiet study of extreme emotional turbulence" by the Times Literary Supplement, and has been translated into 13 languages. Critic Cynthia F. Wong judges A Pale View of Hills, with a first person narrator who tells the story of the suicide of one of her daughters, as an excellent example of Maurice Blanchot's theory that narrators recall and relate past experiences to divest themselves of memories and their past. Like his next two novels, the protagonist of A Pale View of Hills, looks back on his or her life, trying to assess the events that have shaped it. The widow recalls her former life in Nagasaki, and while she never mentions the Bomb, it silently stands behind the events recounted in Ishiguro’s first novel.