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I've greatly admired Booker prize winning (The Remains of the Day) author Kazuo Ishiguro for a long time and am surprised by how long it look me to get around to properly reading his earliest books. A Pale View of Hills is fascinating for what it reveals about an artist at an earlier stage of exploring his narrative and stylistic powers as well as for the tale it tells -- or, being an Ishiguro novel, the tale it doesn’t quite tell. A Japanese woman living in Britain, Etsuko, is the mother of a recent suicide victim. Yet as she begins her memoir, the story she tells is of her own earlier life in postwar Nagasaki. It’s an elegant and enigmatic story, and I’ll try to comment on it without giving too much away.


The big philosophical issues Ishiguro’s later novels explore -- existential angst about what are we to make of the particular life we have, for instance -- are already probed here, with what would become Ishiguro's customary delicacy. Certain instances of finely drawn dialogue are a good example of this (not all of it is perfect, but it is all forgivable in a first novel that many seasoned writers could not equal); 'So many women just get brainwashed. they think all there is to life is getting marred and having a load of kids.' says the daughter, to which the mother, a survivor of Nagasaki, replies 'In the end... there isn't very much else.'


The issue of gender is significant for the text, too. In the new post-war Japan, society struggles to work out how much of the modern world to absorb. The father-in-law's insistence on traditional values comes across, as does so much in this book, as fated and above all, as terribly sad. Speaking of gender -- how gratifying to read a book with the theme of motherhood, surely one of the most significant yet most under-explored subjects in literature (but I'll have more to say about that later, elsewhere, I'm sure) -- written by a man. And so heartbreaking. Here are intertwined the grief of an elderly woman for a daughter who has hanged herself and the reminiscences she has of a woman she knew in Nagasaki, a woman anxious to get to the West (where the narrator now lives) and who

seems extraordinarily neglectful of her child as she plans a way of getting there. The child, mysteriously babyish and wise at the same time, perhaps capable of withstanding great tragedy or perhaps already lost to it (the things she has seen! it is the after effects of the bombing that are cruelest) turns out, like the hanged daughter -- very like the hanged daughter -- to be the crux of the story. Towards the end of the book, the Nagasaki child, the neglected, suffering one, turns to the narrator who has been trying to alert her mother to the neglect the girl has suffered and


addresses her as mother and asks why she is holding a rope



And it is then that I felt that shiver of realisation and that all the clues in the text began to slide into place. I had already wondered

to what extent the old cottage and the woman there represented Etsuko’s own past.

Now I realised why the story was being told. How brilliantly, in his already elliptical fashion, Ishiguro shows us.

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An Artist of the Floating World was his second book, and it's another gem. As I recollect, it's the story of how an artist struggles to understand changes in the society of post-war Japan, when, during the war, he worked as a propagandist. I'm sorry my explanation sounds so clumsy, it's a while since I read it. But I actually liked it even better than A Pale View of Hills

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  • 8 months later...

I finished this yesterday. All the hallmarks of Ishiguro's fiction are here in his accomplished debut, especially his exquisitely elegant writing and his unreliable narrator. Like Stevens in "The Remains of the Day", Etsuko is quite deliberately not providing her reader with a complete picture.


Kimberley's already related most of what is easily revealable about this novel, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to spoiler most of this post.



My interpretation differs somewhat from Kim's. Quite simply, I wasn't entirely sure Sachiko, the neighbour woman, and Mariko, her daughter, really existed. Instead, Etsuko is projecting certain experiences of her life onto them, perhaps as a kind of transferrance to help her deal with Keiko's suicide. One hint of this for me is that, at the end of the penultimate chapter, Etsuko talks to Mariko about their leaving Nagasaki, not Mariko and her mother departing.


Etsuko isn't explicit about Keiko's reasons for killing herself, dwelling only on how antisocial she became in the last years of her life. Mariko is, similarly, a highly antisocial child, preferring the company of kittens and spiders to people and often ignoring her mother.


Sachiko represents Etsuko's desire to break the shackles on women's roles within Japanese society. Where Sachiko hopes to escape with her GI boyfriend Frank to the USA, Etsuko never reveals how she comes to be living in England, or if the husband she has been living with there is Jiro, her husband in Nagasaki.


She is a dutiful wife to Jiro, especially since Ogata-san, her father-in-law, is staying. There's a startling discussion between Jiro, Ogata-san and a couple of visiting work colleagues of Jiro's about a man who has beaten his wife when he discovers she has voted differently to him in a recent election. During this discussion, Etsuko meekly serves tea to the men.



All the hallmarks of Ishiguro's fiction are here, especially his exquisitely elegant writing and his unreliable narrator. Like Stevens in "The Remains of the Day", Etsuko is quite deliberately not providing her reader with a complete picture.


Where "The Remains of the Day" is an impressive portrait of a very English mindset, this seemed to me to be a very Japanese novel. Its cool eerieness reminded me of my new favourite novelist, Haruki Murakami, who has an impressive ability to do much the same thing.


It has to be said, though, that the secret at the heart of this novel is more ambiguous than in Ishiguro's later books, which makes this a weaker, but still impressive work, overall.

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