Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book 10: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel is definitely a little ambiguous. At only 183 pages, it is the shortest novel I've read in a long time, and there are many questions that are not quite answered. Etsuko, the narrator, is an older Japanese woman living in England. Her husband is long dead, her older daughter, Keiko, has recently committed suicide, and her younger daughter, Niki, is visiting her temporarily. Niki and Keiko were only half-sisters, and Keiko never really seemed to adjust to her life with her new family members, spending most days in her room, only rarely coming downstairs before finally moving out.

The rest of the novel goes back and forth between Etsuko's memories of a certain summer in Japan, which took place in the Nagasaki area a few years after the war, and her visit with Niki. It is during this summer that a pregnant Etusko met Sachiko and her daughter Mariko when they moved into the neighborhood. Sachiko is not exactly a very attentive mother, and no one else in the neighborhood really talks to her due to her connection with an American. Etsuko and Sachiko become friends of a sort, though it is a rather weird friendship since Etsuko spends much of her time passively questioning Sachiko's decisions regarding her daughter. In fact, I wasn't quite sure if the dialogue was stilted because this was the author's first novel, or if it was due to the formality of Japanese culture he was trying to represent, though I'm leaning towards the later.

Etsuko's father-in-law is also visiting that summer, and the relationship between him and his son seems rather strained. While Etsuko enjoys her father-in-law, his interactions with his son make him rather annoying although his son is also rather inconsiderate and expects his wife to serve him hand and foot. There is one point when she stops on her way to the kitchen to hear some news he is sharing, and then he notices her and asks what is taking so long with his tea. While his father is much nicer to Etsuko, he also has definite notions of a woman's role, and expresses surprise when hearing about a wife that voted for a different candidate than her husband.

The war still overshadows the lives of the people though they do not talk about specifics too much. Sachiko implies several times that she is from high society, and her current conditions of poverty are completely unlike anything from her previous life. Other characters have lost loved ones; Etsuko's father-in-law was once a teacher, and he feels some critiques from a former student very deeply. He doesn't agree with the critique at all, but the younger generation definitely feels like the extreme patriotism and nationalism in their curriculum did not serve them in the previous years.

The novel itself overall is not too eventful but there is a dark presence in the background, making it seem like something bad could happen or is about to happen. Mariko is always running off on her own, and seems to have some serious problems interacting with people. She also keeps talking about a mysterious woman that her mother shrugs off for the most part. Also, the ending brings the rest of the novel into question - are the narrator's memories overlapping, or is there something she was hiding that she may have accidentally revealed through a slip up?

The novel does not answer these questions, and Ishiguro just gives the bare essentials when it comes to his characters and their lives - he gives background through small hints, but does not spell everything out. While I like that not everything is revealed and he doesn't feel the need to be incredibly specific when a few sentences give enough of a picture, I still would have loved to hear more about what happened to all the characters to get them where they were.

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