After asking the question ‘why don’t men read books by women’ the other day I suddenly realised that I had been reading lots of novels by female authors and not a lot by men. I decided that it was time to rectify this, but which male author to choose. I plumped for Kazuo Ishiguro and his debut novel ‘A Pale View of Hills’ in the end. Having read two novels by Ishiguro in the past, one ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ (read pre-blog) which I didn’t like so much and the other ‘Never Let Me Go’ which I adored, I was intrigued to see where his first book would land, would I love it or be left feeling rather nonchalant about it?
‘A Pale View of Hills’ opens in England as Etsuko’s second daughter Niki comes to stay with her mother after the suicide of her older half sister Keiko. A small incident which seems like nothing to anyone but Etsuko finds her looking back at her life in Japan before she moved away and a brief friendship, of sorts, which she had with another woman Sachiko. Through almost dual narratives a rather eerie set of stories starts to come to light. In the present we watch as Niki and her mother start to become fearful and uneasy of her Keiko’s bedroom which could be grief or could it be something more? In Etsuko’s past we find not only a post war and recovering Nagasaki as the occupation looks like it might end, but the mysterious nature of her acquaintance Sachiko.
It’s interesting to see someone revealing not one but two past lives and both have a certain mystery about them. Why in the modern day did Keiko kill herself and why don’t either her mother, who when people ask says her eldest daughter is fine not dead, or sister, who never went to her own sister’s funeral because ‘she always made me feel miserable’, deal with it and almost deny it happened? In the past we not only have what is a time of great change, which through Etsuko’s first husband Jiro and his father, not only for the people and place (both amazingly depicted by Ishiguro) but for Etsuko herself who is carrying her first child. There is also the great mystery of who the woman from across the river is and why she wants Sachiko’s daughter Mariko to follow her into the woods?
I am worried I have made it sound like a book that covers too much and doesn’t know where it’s going and this is far from the case. Ishiguro masterfully, and it should be noted in under 200 pages, makes these narratives weave together (obviously they are both Etsuko’s life but its more than just that) and then takes a few twists and turns that will have the reader speeding through the last few pages completely gripped before leaving the reader with much to think about and ponder after its conclusion. It is an effect that would leave you rather unsatisfied if you weren’t reading a book that leaves you wanting to guess and wanting to figure out the final pieces of this book equivalent of a jigsaw.
I found the women in the book fascinating, in particular Sachiko, who is a very strange and enigmatic woman who teases Etsuko with slight visions into her life but never giving anything away too much or contradicting anything that does. My only slight criticism would be the men. I did find the chapters with Etsuko’s husband and father in law slowed the book down a little, for example one particular chess game and its minimal need in the book became a little dull, yet without them and seeing things through their eyes a changing nation wouldn’t have been so easy to capture I don’t think. The women did really live and breath for me, and how Ishiguro did that whilst making them incredibly disarming with their secrecy I don’t know.
I really enjoyed ‘A Pale View of Hills’. It picked me up, carried me off and then left me wanting more and also really thinking about it long after I had put it down. It wasn’t the spooky tale I initially thought it might be but I was pleased with the new direction it took. I liked the aspect that there were mysteries that Ishiguro leaves rather inconclusive clues (I think that is right) to the reader through out and then leaves you to make your own mind up about what they might mean. He trusts his readers and seems want you to do some of the work yourself and that to me really appealed. It’s not going to be a book everyone loves, its one I would recommend they give a try though. 8/10
This book was kindly given to me by the publishers.
Who else has read this book and what did you think? What did you make of the ending (though if you want to discuss it please mention it could be a spoiler in the comments)? What other Ishiguro books have you read, and which one would you recommend I try next?