I’ve only read The Buried Giant and The Remains of the Day and when I looked on my book wish-list, I saw Kazuo Ishiguro’s dazzling debut novel called “A pale view of the hills” and I closed my eyes and made the purchase. When I saw the tiny book (181 pages which to my accounts is TINY!) that came back, I started wondering whether it’s going to have enough time to unfurl into a well-written piece.
It’s only when I hit the 70% mark I realized this was going to be a VERY, VERY well written-book with a good twist. As we’re still on the Mental Disability Awareness Month, I shall add this book to that list at number 11. All the characters are mentally disturbed to a point, we have two suicides and characters on the bridge between autistic and suffering from schizophrenia. Or both. I loved it.
The story shifts between Etsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England in the modern day, who is visited by her younger daughter Niki after the suicide of her elder daughter Keiko and the same Etsuko who was living in Nagasaki in the first tumultuous years after the second world war, pregnant with her first child. She forms an unusual friendship with Sachiko, whom the war had left single with a disturbed and sometimes sinister-seeming child, Mariko.
Etsuko and Sachiko are two sides of the same coin, totally different but still women by heart. Etsuko is still very traditional, making tea for the husband, agreeing with her father-in-law about what a wife should do (ie. not vote differently from the husband), still accepting the subservient role of the traditional Japanese wife, and Sachiko rebelling against it all, leaving her uncle’s traditional house to live alone with her child, and hoping to depart for America with a lover Frank. I liked Etsuko, calm and composed, always asking about the child that Sachiko seems to forget about or ignore completely.
Sachiko, she seems like the type of person I would avoid on a day-to-day basis. She has a reputation for having American boyfriends and has left her house and her job on a vague promise that her boyfriend (Frank) will take her one day to America. Where her daughter has a chance – to become a Business woman or a Painter (different by nature but still professions she would not have in Japan).
When Frank disappears on a drunken binge (sometimes drinking her money too), she follows him like a puppy, at first finding excuses for him, then telling herself she is better without him. It’s only at this point she focuses on her child again, saying that it would be best for Mariko not to go to America, it’s not a good thing to uproot a child and send him in a foreign environment when she can’t even speak the language.
When Frank returns to the picture, she forgets all about her initial promise and packs up to Kobe where Frank will depart to America only to send money to her when he gets there so that she could follow him.
This is desperation, the wish to believe in a relationship with no future like so many other women before.
She is beautiful, she is young, the only thing not working in her advantage is the daughter Mariko who is not appealing to a possible John. The fact that Mariko is silent and oddly weird also brings despair to Sachiko who wants to get rid of her kid in her subconscious mind and live a life of luxury as a mistress of an American Soldier.
In a rare moment of candor, she stops pretending, and Sachiko bitterly and bluntly tells Etsuko that she has no choice, no other options, and nothing keeping her in Nagasaki.
Mariko is clearly a very unhappy little girl, withdrawn and strange, finding joy only in her kittens and the occasional attention her mother gives her. Sachiko leaves her alone frequently, and laughs at Etsuko’s concern, dismissing the worry with a wave of her hand. She makes emphatic, frequent mention of her devotion to her daughter, her fierce protection of her daughter, and her insistence on always putting her daughter first, while her actions consistently prove the opposite to be true.
On the night before Sachiko leaves Nagasaki to go to America, Mariko pleads with her mother to keep her promise of allowing Mariko to bring the kittens with her. Sachiko’s response is to admonish Mariko that the kittens are only animals, no more, and that she mustn’t develop foolish attachments to creatures. She then takes the crate of kittens from Mariko and drowns them in the river while Mariko and Etsuko watch.
At this point in the narrative I was horrified because I felt sure that Etsuko, that ANY compassionate onlooker, whether or not they were polite and Japanese, would have spoken up, protested, saved the kittens and saved the little girl from that horror. I found it unbelievable that Etsuko would stand by and allow that to happen! Mariko, presumably distraught, runs away and hides by the river bank.
The passivity begins to make more sense in the next scene, as Etsuko and Sachiko return to the cottage, and Etsuko takes the lantern to go and find Mariko. When she finds the little girl huddled at the river bank in misery, the narrative abruptly – and startlingly, I had to go back three times – changes from third person to first person, and while there is no doubt it is Etsuko who has left with the lantern to find Mariko, she speaks to her as her own daughter, telling her to be brave, that tomorrow they are leaving to America, that if it’s terrible they can come back to Japan, but that Frank will treat them well.
“Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here. ”
After a moment of stunned blinking, it began to make sense. Etsuko, in the present (not flashback) day makes reference to Niki and Keiko being half-sisters, with different fathers. More blinking, and it became clear that Etsuko’s memory of Sachiko and Mariko is really her own memory of her raising Keiko in Nagasaki – before the moved to Britain to be with her new husband. Whether through exhaustion, misery at an unhappy marriage, depression or other, Etsuko remembers the terrible mother she was to her first-born daughter, and now, in the present-day, that Keiko has never recovered, and in fact taken her own life, the only way she can begin to remember without being entirely overwhelmed by grief, guilt and shame, is to detachedly remember through a third-person filter.
Regardless, the story is one of loss and guilt. While the bulk of the book can be read as detached observation – reflecting the (lack of) emotion in its characters – the devastation of the realization at the end comes like a physical blow, and makes the reader close his/her eyes against all the pages that went before, as we come to recognize the truth.
I think Ishiguro had not polished his craft so well in this first novel; some of the timelines feel clumsy and confusing, and (I rarely say this) I wish he had made the book just a bit longer to develop the characters’ natures in more depth.
Pretending to talk about someone else, usually an invented character, when really talking about oneself, is a technique employed specifically to avoid referring to oneself, but here Etsuko inserts herself into the story as a large-as-life character minutely involved (for the short period they know each other) with Sachiko and her daughter Mariko, and very different from the more mysterious Sachiko not only in character but in concrete circumstance.
There are too many internal inconsistencies to fulfil the notion that they are the same person.
On the more trivial level, but nevertheless sending a strong diversionary signal, Sachiko runs off with an American to America while Etsuko has clearly come to England with an English serviceman. More problematically, it’s difficult to see the parallels between Etsuko’s meticulously-portrayed home situation, living with her husband and father-in-law, and the rather mysterious yet significant-seeming setup with an uncle and ancient female cousin that Sachiko has left behind; more glaringly, if Sachiko is really Etsuko, then Sachiko’s daughter Mariko must be Etsuko’s elder daughter Keiko (and indeed if Keiko is this disturbed child, then her suicide is explained) but at the time when the two women are friends, Etsuko, significantly for her emotional state at the time, is pregnant with her first child.
These things are, clearly, enough to put many readers right off the scent. Although Ann and I had wondered at times as we read if Sachiko and Etsuko were one, the inconsistencies had made us discount the notion until we reached that final pronoun shift. Then, instead of having the desired Of course! reaction, we racked our brains to try and see how it had all fitted, and couldn’t.
The second approach
There is another thing that bugs me. Throughout the book, Etsuko keeps asking where the child is. The child is bent to run off, and Etsuko goes out looking for her on several occasions, though Sachiko always says there is nothing to worry about. On one occasion, she has gotten a rope caught around her ankle when she finds Mariko, and Mariko appears afraid of her. There are also different reports in the neighbourhood about children found dead – with their heads smashed in – both boys and girls – and Etsuko is told by her father-in-law that before the marriage she was a different person – demanding that Azaleas to be planted in front of the house
“Like I was some sort of gardner!”
She clearly does not remember the scene and others that people tell her about which makes me think she went through some sort of psychological disorder.
Later, in the crucial scene where Etsuko finds Mariko by the river and speaks to her as though she were Sachiko (saying,
“If you don’t like it in America, we can come back”
— leading many readers to believe that Etsuko is Sachiko), she is again suddenly holding a rope. The child asks why she is holding it, and she says again that it just got caught around her ankle, and that she’s not going to hurt the child.
In the memory, Mariko runs away, but I believe Etsuko in fact kills the child. This explains her premonition earlier that day, and her recurring dreams, in England, of a little girl “swinging” (not on a swing, but by a rope).