Review: A Pale View of Hills

No spoilers.

A Pale View of Hills is Kazuo Ishiguro's debut novel, and also the first of his works I've read. The novel centres on Etsuko, a Japanese woman who moved to England some time after World War II. It opens with a visit by her daughter, Niki; they soon find their conversations inevitably drawn towards Keiko, Etsuko's older daughter who had recently committed suicide. Etsuko struggles to discuss this with Niki, and the rest of the novel shows her reminiscing about her life in Japan.

This short novel, running just under 200 pages, is bursting with themes, the most prominent of which is perhaps that of the interplay between memory, trauma, and personal narrative. As Etsuko tells us about her life in post-war Nagasaki, we're told nothing about Keiko, and the story focuses instead on the period when Etsuko was pregnant with Keiko. Aside from her first husband, Jiro Ogata, and her father-in-law, Seiji, Etsuko mostly interacts with Sachiko, a slightly older war widow, and Sachiko's daugher, Mariko. These two timelines appear to have little to do with each other, until they abruptly intersect amidst some remarkable parallels, conflicting memories, and bizarre distortions in narrative voice. It's a brilliant exploration of the unreliability of our memories, as well as an example of what processing grief and trauma may look like.

This personal trauma is set against a backdrop of tumultuous societal change across the generations, punctuated by a world war. Seiji Ogata struggles to connect with his son, Jiro, who brushes him off with excuses about his busy job. Seiji is also tormented by an article by a former student of his, in which he is denounced for his imperialist stance as a schoolteacher during the run-up to the war. The role of women in Japanese society also undergoes a welcome evolution, and Niki's life in London would be incomprehensible to Seiji.

The prose is quiet and elegant, striking a perfect balance between pretty descriptions of scenery and the detached, almost depersonalised tone with which Etsuko recounts her memories. Add to that some masterfully crafted dialogue, and we get an overall atmosphere that is contemplative, pensive, and haunting, at times eerie and outright horrific. The characters are written incredibly well, and they are both instantly believable and intricately layered.

I found this a very powerful read that will linger in my mind for much longer than the short time it took to complete it. Far from being an overpoweringly tragic tear-jerker, it's nonetheless a meditative and thought-provoking book about painful subjects.

Some useful analyses Eckert, Ken. "Evasion and the Unsaid in Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills." Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, vol. 10 no. 1, 2012, p. 77-92. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/pan.2012.0013.

Michael R. Molino (2012) Traumatic Memory and Narrative Isolation in Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 53:4, 322-336, doi: 10.1080/00111619.2010.494258

Lydia Gaukler (Autor), 2006, The Aspect of Memory in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 'A Pale View of Hills', München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/71528


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