I am trying to get back into the habit of taking some notes of my reading and finding time to write up thoughts in this space. I’ve neglected this blog over the last two years and this feels a little unsteadying. I am never quite as happy as when I have time to think (which for me means writing) about a book. But I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking about each book as a potential “review” and this has kept me from writing a bit more freely about the books I’m reading.
A few months ago a good friend passed me Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills. I’ve read him before, and in fact, An Artist of the Floating World as well as Never Let Me Go are both favorites of mine—although for very very very different reasons. But A Pale View of Hills is one of those books that went on the special shelf I reserve for books I end up thinking of as “perfect”.
I found it perfect for a number of reasons—in its prose style mainly (Ishiguro is a quiet writer who writes directly and simply but still achieves an overall lyrical feel) but also its structure and the way the time jumps inform the front story in surprising ways.
The novel is told by Etsuko and she begins by telling us something of her two daughters—Niki, who is younger and half-English, and Keiko, who is Japanese. The novel takes place over the course of Niki’s five-day-visit to Etsuko in her countryside home in England—that is the present framework—but the story is actually one of Etsuko going back into the past, into post WWII Japan and telling the reader something of her life at that time, before she came to England.
It isn’t just Niki’s visit to her mother that inspires these memories, but the recent suicide of the older daughter Keiko. Ishiguro writes this devastating sentence on page two:
The English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary; for that was all they reported, that she was Japanese and that she had hung herself in her room.
That “as if further explanations are unnecessary” is so key here. Not only does it reflect the depth of bitterness and maybe even resignation that Etsuko is dealing with, but it also gives the reader the entire reason for the story she is about to tell.
The book then very quickly jumps into the past and Etsuko begins to tell the story of a woman she once knew, a woman named Sachiko with whom she was not really friends but with whom she spent much of a summer while she was pregnant with Keiko. Etsuko tells us about Sachiko and Sachiko’s daughter Mariko. We learn that Sachiko has fallen on hard times and is living on the fringes of town. Etsuko helps her find a job and begins to look after Mariko from time to time.
Sachiko is one of those marvelous fictional characters who presents the reader with many questions. What kind of woman is she? Are her actions (many of which seem cruel and self-centered) coming from her own innate character or from her difficult situation? Or what measure of each? Mariko, the daughter, is a difficult and mysterious child. She is badly behaved and sullen. And yet I found myself achingly sad as I read her story because Ishiguro reveals her loneliness and fear in disturbing ways.
This story from the past takes up most of the book, but the way the two timeframes speak to each other is really where the book affected me. Generally, I love books that do this (a past story informing a present-tense story) but A Pale View of Hills is one of the best examples. I don’t want to give anything away, so it’s hard to be too detailed, but it wasn’t just that because of Etsuko’s memories of that summer we understand something more of her relationship with her two daughters, it was more that we begin to question Etsuko’s memories and what she is actually trying to say. By the time we get to the end we realize that Ishiguro has been laying out a series of fascinating parallels that change almost everything about what we think we’ve understood all along.
And finally, throughout the past-tense story are hints that this is also a book of the war, of a Japan that is sorting out its future. This idea remains fairly muted but it is very powerful when looked at alongside the more personal stories of Etsuko and Sachiko and what happens to their lives.
I haven’t said nearly half of what I wanted to write about for this book, but it will have to do for today. I have a short stack of books I read over the summer and this fall that I’d like to write about as well, including Ramuz’s first novel Aline (1905), Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, which I absolutely loved. I hope to get to these books soon. I am slowly reading Kathryn Davis’s Duplex right now, and it’s such an odd book. It’s strangely beautiful and often a little disturbing, which I think is the intended effect, but I am enjoying it and enjoying the work involved in trying to understand it.