Monday, January 7, 2008


Etsuko, a Japanese woman who grew up in pre-War Nagasaki, lives alone in England. Her English daughter, Niki, comes to for a short visit, and Niki's visit prompts a chain of thoughts and memories, both of Etsuko's first marriage in post-War Nagasaki (and a solitary single mother with whom she became friendly) and of the recent suicide of her oldest daughter, Keiko.

I liked this book. Ishiguro has a way of overstating the most mundane elements of his story, thus investing them with ambivalent morality, darkness, and implications. I found Etsuko extremely persuasive as a narrator--interesting to me, since all the other books I've read by Ishiguro thus far have had male narrators of a certain self-interested ilk.

I read Ishiguro for two reasons. The first is that he truly is a (or the) master of the first-person narrator. He is unembarrassed of reality, even the most unattractive reality, and recreates unflinchingly (yet manages never to bore). Hence the masterpiece that is THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. But my other reason, which is maybe less univeral among his readers, is that I'm really compelled by what he has to say about Japan. In his books, as in many other works of literature, cinema, etc, by both Japanese writers/expats and international writers of Japanese descent, there is a theme of The War--it always comes back to The War, no matter how far removed you think a subject is. I hope Ishiguro wouldn't think I'm simplifying any of his complex and sophisticated books by saying this; I just think it's very easy for English language readers to forget (or never know about) the devastation of the War in the Pacific, and its very strange two-sided psychological damage to the Japanese people (rather different from the one-sided psychological damage it wreaked on the rest of Asia VIA the Japanese government). Ishiguro's Japanese characters are plagued with both devastation and guilt. The bomb destroyed their lives and they talk about how excited they are to move forward out of the ashes but there is the ever-present underlying fog of the past, of what they lost, and of how responsible they were for losing it.

I want to open up further conversation about this book with other people who have read it, but I don't want to introduce any spoilers. I'm going to make a different post called "A Pale View of Hills Book Club" and then post all my [spoiler-laden] ideas in the comments section. Please share your thoughts with me if you've read this--I'm very very curious to see what other people think.


angelle said...

i love love love ishiguro. i'll have to get to this one at some point. ah! too many books to read, not enough time!

moonrat said...

read this one NOW!!! it's super short and i desperately NEED someone to talk to about it!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Just finshed it and did not find the puzzle pieces fitted together at end as so many reviews said they someone

moonrat said...

that's really how i felt... i made a different post with some discussion so as not to leave any spoilers here (one post after this one)--check it out. some people have some different interpretations.

JS said...

Just finished reading it. Of all Ishiguro's works, this is likely closest to something like Remains of the Day. With a few hours of reflection on the book since I finished it, I am realizing that the pieces don't fit quite as neatly as some might expect. One leading interpretation of what ties (most of) the pieces together does emerge quite easily. Given the premise of unreliability of memory that underlies the book, I guess it is to be expected that not everything will fit into a single interpretation. I have for a while been a huge fan of Ishiguro's ability to set up the most intricately flawed first person narrators, and the most finely woven layered stories that reveal themselves one glimpse at a time. If you have liked these elements elsewhere, Pale View of Hills will be deeply and quietly satisfying.

adniL said...

Just read it a second time and really wish I could shake Ishiguro to loosen a few thoughts from his head. Of course, that's cheating.

Classic Ishiguro unreliable narrator, of course. He's from 2 cultures famous for denial.

I am really interested in The Woman Across the River. I have a feeling that Mariko is afraid her mother is going to drown her. There's the baby Mariko saw being drowned. There's the repeated "why are you holding that rope?" episode and the kittens, of course. Do you think drowning her crossed her mind?

moonrat said...

hi, adnil. yes, i still check this thread to see if anyone can illuminate this for me!

Mariko definitely thinks something sinister is going to happen. and i think Etsuko plans to kill her. that definitely, definitely comes through. there's a combined feeling of irritation/hatred of her child and a sense that it would be euthenasia (or at least that she thinks it would be).

but DID she kill her? does Mariko become Keiko, or does Mariko actually die? or is the whole scenario one Etsuko imagines?

also--no one has brought this up or fleshed it out for me. there's the reference throughout the book, at least twice, to a serial killer who is murdering children in the area. is Etsuko somehow involved? or is it a post-war poverty/trauma thing that is causing a lot of people to become unbearably frustrated with their domestic situations?

shaking ishiguro loose, indeed. RATS. and this was his DEBUT and he was this complicated.

adniL said...

The other thought that crossed my mind on this read-through (besides Etsuko being a younger, more naive self) was actual multiple personalities and that Mariko could tell when her mother becomes The Woman Across the River. That could explain the different names. Off hand, I don't know what name she uses in the present (besides Mrs. Jones, or whatever it is).

We do know that Mariko is Keiko. That connection is made for us when they look at the picture taken the day they went up the mountain. "Keiko was happy that day." While the transformation may have killed some part of them, Mariko didn't literally die. Keiko was one of the names Etsuko discusses with her father-in-law when she's pregnant.

When I first read this book 10 or so years ago, I investigated the meanings of the names. The meanings of Japanese names do rely on which exact characters are used to write them, but Ishiguro was educated in England and probably would have some of the more common meanings in mind. I can't remember what people gave me for meanings, but there was some sense there.

This kind of book is right up my alley. You have to interpret to make sense of it. A lot of Haruki Murakami fiction also requires interpretation.

adniL said...

One more thing I forgot to say. Sorry.

Because of Mariko's age when the story takes place, it's not impossible that Etsuko had another child in the meantime, and that was the baby Mariko saw drowned.

Chris J said...

I did not think that Mariko was Keiko because of the "Keiko was very happy that day at least"...
I thought it was a mistake at first but this would never have been missed before publishing, or would have been publicly corrected by now had it been a mistake. So I took it literally, Keiko, although in the womb, was happy that day...
I found the book ultimately frustrating, and in places boring. I was anticipating a dark twist, a murder perhaps, certainly all this stalking of Mariko set the scene....but the book fizzled out for me. I'm guessng Etsuko was some kind of psycho, disturbed...hence she keeps chasing the kid with the rope and saying she means her no harm. Had Keiko "hung herself" at home, we'd be pointing the finger at Etsuko, only she didn't, she did it herself in Manchester. I think her mother has mental issues which she passed on to Keiko, although Nikki seems balanced enough.
I found the dialogue tedious going in places, I took a dislike to Ogata-San, a real boring old so and so, as well as to his son, and especially to Sachiko, so rude...but then I think Ishiguro's intention was to depict her exactly as such.
Even when Igot to the final half page and knew there just wasn't enough text left over to get the final twist in, that would explain massive parts of the book, I was still hoping for it, but it never arrived.
I'm still glad to have read the book or I would not know any of the above, and having read Remains of The Day, Ishiguro was a firm favourite with me already. Although not really satisfied with this effort (his debut), I shall still attempt further Ishiguro novels with enthusiasm.

Ursula said...

I think Ishiguro deliberately makes one question at the end whether Etsuko is the the woman who has been presented to us, or is she actually the friend Sachico or even the woman who has drowned her baby or the child murderer?

There are concrete hints that she could be any one of these, however, you also cannot pin her down exactly to one of these positions. There are some differences between her and Sachico, such as the fact that she ends up in England. The woman who has drowned her baby supposedly then commited suicide.

I don't believe one can - or is meant to - resolve this fundamental problem. It seemed to me that what Ishiguro was trying to portray is a guilt that extends across a whole community - not located in one person. Each is as implicated as another. This fits very well with the theme of Nagasaki and how, in a sense, the old ways of Japan had resulted in its downfall.

I absolutely love this book and have read it several times. In my view Ishiguro is at his best in his early novels about Japn.

KLG said...

I've read all Ishiguro's books but for some reason this was the last one. It didn't disappoint and the fact that I've read the later ones first meant that the inconclusive ending didn't come as too much of a surprise.I loved this book.
I agree that ultimately it's about guilt-Etsuko's guilt about Keiko,Japan's guilt about everything! Is Mariko actually Keiko and is Etsuka actually Sachiko? I think so. I think her memories of events are interpretations of guilt and regrets with the baby/kitten drownings and child murders being metaphors for the results that Etsuka/Sachiko's actions will eventually have on Keiko/Mariko.Of course,I could be completely wrong,but I adored this thought provoking debut.

Mr Christopher said...

That's pretty good KLG, I'd agree with that.