A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro

Here is what I think goes on in A Pale View of Hills.  I think.  (There will be spoilers, sort of.)  The frame story concerns the protagonist Etsuko receiving a visit from her daughter Niki, not long after her older daughter, Keiko, has committed suicide.  Etsuko is remembering a friend she knew long ago, when she still lived in Japan, a woman called Sachiko and her young daughter Mariko.  And I believe that what is going on is that Sachiko, actually, is Etsuko, and that Etsuko is trying to make her memories of having been a slightly careless mother to Mariko/Keiko less painful, recasting herself in the role of concerned friend.  I am not positive about this, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to me.  If you have read it, please tell me what you think about this.

As you can tell from the uncertainty of the above synopsis, this is a bewildering book.  I closed it and thought Huh, and then realized that the only way for the story to make sense at all – by which I meant, what did Etsuko go through to get out of Japan, that occupied Niki’s interest so much – was for Sachiko and Etsuko to be the same person.  Particularly as we know that Etsuko remarries to produce Niki.  And because Niki keeps going on about how brave and impressive Etsuko was, getting out of Japan, and Etsuko keeps trying to kill that line of conversation.

Still, I’m not sure at all.  A Pale View of Hills is elliptical like Ishiguro’s books are; I enjoy this about his work.  I thought the relationship between Etsuko and her father-in-law was touching, especially as compared to the way the father-in-law relates to Etsuko’s first husband, Jiro.  I enjoyed the book, but I am not positive that I understood it.

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is more like it.

I read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when I was in England.  I don’t remember why – maybe it was that phase in my life where I was getting book recommendations from book prize lists.  Book prize books are often not good books for me (see Darkmans).  However, I really liked Never Let Me Go, and I really liked this one too.  The Remains of the Day is all about a butler called Stevens who has been in service for many years, and has gone on a trip to visit an old friend (she sounds unhappy in her marriage), and as he travels, he is remembering his life.  This sounds a bit boring but it really isn’t once it gets going.

I love the way Kazuo Ishiguro writes (love his name too).  The narrators are carrying along narrating, and everything’s fine, and then there occurs a jarring note – some incident or anecdote that seems a bit weird.  And you’re thinking, Huh.  That was weird, but things keep going along, so you aren’t too fussed about it.  And then when you’ve mostly forgotten about it, there occurs another jarring note, and another one, until you are quite, quite certain that there is something not very nice going on.  Then at the exact moment when you have become completely positive that something is up, that is the exact moment at which it (more or less) snaps into focus.

At least, such has been my experience with the two of Ishiguro’s books that I have read.

In this case – spoilers, if you don’t want to know what has been happening, and it’s not some big revelation or anything, it’s just a thing you don’t become aware of at first – the not-nice things are related to Stevens’s previous employer’s political affiliations.  Again, I swear to you, not as boring as I’ve just made it sound; it’s all about the emotional resonance for Stevens, realizing he’s given his life and all his loyalty to someone who was doing bad things (albeit with good intentions).

At the same time, and with the same theme, you’re seeing flashbacks of Stevens’s relationship with one of his previous coworkers, Miss Kenton – the same lady he is going on a trip to visit in the present day.  This is all along the same themes as the business with his employer: the way that he ignores himself for the sake of his professionalism.

Major props, can I just say, to Ishiguro for managing to make this book so absorbing, when the action is essentially emotional rather than actually actiony.  It’s books like these that make me carry on picking things up that people say “don’t have much in the way of plot” – I think they’ll be like this.  Not a lot happens in The Remains of the Day, but I still couldn’t put it down, and I read it all the way through on Monday evening.  It’s funny and sad and evocative and emotionally resonant, and it made me want to go get the rest of Ishiguro’s books and read them.