My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Pale View of Hills may be my favorite of Ishiguro’s early (pre-Unconsoled) novels. Having browsed some Ishiguro criticism over the years, I vaguely knew this novel’s secret before I read it, and I worried that it would be too literal. But the narrative is handled very subtly, and the reader has to do most of the work, as it should be—A Pale View of Hills is essentially a sequence of discomforting dialogues in which nothing essential is said and everything implied.
(This technique is an Ishiguro specialty that some have attributed to his dual heritage of Japanese and English national cultures, both of which are said to prize a polite reticence in the face of even the worst calamity. Being neither English nor Japanese myself [in fact, the two nations in my own background, Italy and the United States, both have a reputation for brash hot-hotheadedness], and being moreover rather skeptical of “national” aesthetics, I will forgo judgment on this matter.)
Ishiguro is the most unquotable of novelists. Detached from context, any of his sentences or paragraphs will appear perfectly dull; in context, however, they roil with menace and repression.
Ishiguro has often cited Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charlotte Brontë as primary influences, and this story of a double makes good the claim—Dostoevsky, of course, wrote a whole novel on the double theme while Jane Eyre is a story of the heroine confronting her darkly externalized rage in the form of “the madwoman in the attic” (I borrow my reading from the authors of the book of that name).
In A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko is a Japanese woman living in contemporary England and trying not to think too hard about her eldest daughter’s recent suicide by hanging. Avoiding the subject that in fact obsesses her, she narrates instead her reminiscences of a strange postwar summer in Nagasaki, a summer in which she became entangled in the life of her new neighbors, Sachiko and her daughter Mariko. Sachiko is planning to leave Japan with an American, a course of action the young and traditional bride Etsuko plainly finds unrealistic and unwholesome.
Moreover, Mariko is responding to the situation badly, obsessing over her cats, claiming that a woman across the river visits her in the night when her mother is off with Frank, and running away from home to climb trees in the dark. Gradually, we come to understand that in fact there is no Sachiko, that it was Etsuko who abandoned her family and took her daughter with an American to England, and that she blames her daughter’s suicide on this course of action. The novel’s twice-repeated motif of “Mariko” thinking that Etsuko is coming toward her to harm her with a rope, even as children in Nagasaki are being murdered and hanged from trees, suggests this with an enviable symbolic economy.
The eeriness of this novel is at times so intense that I wondered if it might not become a straightforward horror story: I think of the scene where Mariko tries to eat a spider, or the whole setting of the rotten waste ground between the two women’s homes, which seems to stand for the unconscious itself. This textural thickness of atmosphere rescues the novel from any Freudian literalism, though it is nevertheless deeply Freudian—a free-associated monologue in which the repressed contents of the mind are disgorged as symbols that have to be interpreted.
The novel’s crowning irony moves from the psychological to the socio-political. It concerns Etsuko’s relation with her surviving daughter, her daughter with her western husband, who lives a free and bohemian and feminist life in London, much to Etsuko’s barely concealed dismay; now that she regrets her own embrace of individualism and modernity, blaming it for her eldest daughter’s death, she passively abhors it in her youngest daughter.
Her fantasy of her older self as a more traditional and dutiful wife, one who even takes the side of her husband’s unrepentantly right-wing father, is a historical wish-fulfillment, a revision of herself into a “good girl,” one to whom harm might never come. And Ishiguro, with exemplary negative capability, lets this irony thread its way through his characters’ speeches and actions without ever making judgments for us. Who are we to judge Etsuko?
Still, the unreliable narrator structure is probably too easy in the end, as Ishiguro realized by the time he wrote The Unconsoled, a novel whose setting is not less untrustworthy than its narrator. And in his masterpiece, Never Let Me Go, the disturbing implication is that the narrator, Kathy H., understands her circumstances perfectly, better than we do. But all of the later themes are here in his first novel, and executed, within their limitations, perfectly. A superb novel.