Book Review: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is the debut novel of an author who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a poignant if somewhat oblique tale set in rural England where a woman is remembering her early life – spent in Nagasaki in the aftermath of the Second World War. An undercurrent of unease permeates prose that paints a picture of a protagonist trying to move forward despite memories shadowed by regret.

The story opens by introducing Etsuko who is being visited by her younger daughter, Niki. They do not mention the elder child, Keiko, immediately. The adult sisters had left the family home some years previously, moving to London and Birmingham respectively. The reader quickly learns that Keiko recently committed suicide and Niki did not attend the funeral. There are tensions in the family.

During Niki’s shorter than hoped for visit her mother recalls a woman, Sachiko, who she knew briefly during the early years of her first marriage, when she was still living in Nagasaki. The city was rebuilding following the devastation of the bomb, although the Americans had not yet all left. Etsuko and her husband, Jiro, lived in one of the newly built apartment blocks and were expecting their first child. The surroundings were wasteland, abutting a river. A few old houses remained and Sachiko moved into one of these with her truculent young daughter.

During this time Jiro’s father, Ogata, was visiting for an unspecified length of time. The reader learns that, traditionally, generations of family in Japan would have lived together.

Ogata is a retired teacher and expresses concern that a former friend of Jiro’s has written an article criticising Ogata and the education system the older man bemoans has been replaced by American style teaching. Ogata believes a son should be defending his father, something Jiro appears keen to avoid – although he does not admit to this.

“We devoted ourselves to ensuring that proper qualities were handed down, that children grew up with the correct attitude to their country, to their fellows. There was a spirit in Japan once, it bound us all together. Just imagine what it must be like being a young boy today. He’s taught no values at school – except perhaps that he should selfishly demand whatever he wants out of life.”

Father and son are in agreement over the role of women – that they should be subservient. Etsuko is living in the manner expected and claiming she is happy. Women who know her question this assertion.

The plot progresses quietly through day to day activities yet offers a depth that resonates. Etsuko is concerned by Sachiko’s apparent neglect of her daughter. Sachiko is eager to leave Japan and is consorting with an American in the hope of achieving this. Her daughter is unhappy with the proposed changes and the turbulence of her mother’s promises and plans.

Scenes from the lives of each character provide evidence of attitudes in Japan at this time and how quickly and radically these had changed. So many in the city had lost family members in the war. Dialogue demonstrates how little could be directly expressed due to ingrained cultural behaviours.

Etsuko’s recollections are shaded by time that has passed and knowledge of where her actions led. Now she finds herself emotionally distanced from Niki and, once again, unsure of how to proceed.

It is impressive how such a short novel can convey so many facets of desire and behaviour – the cost of attaining an outcome and then living with the consequences. Although story development can at times appear cryptic, I found this an affecting and satisfying read.

A Pale View of Hills in published by Faber and Faber.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: The Cake Tree In The Ruins

The Cake Tree In The Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), is a collection of twelve short stories set in Japan towards the end of the Second World War. In 1945 the author watched the Allied fire bombing of Kobe kill his adoptive parents. He subsequently witnessed his sister starving to death. These stories are based on his experiences. They are dark and at times savage but this seems apt given the subject matter. Most end on the 15th of August 1945 when Japan surrendered leaving a population numb, subsisting amongst the ruins of the many towns and villages razed.

The collection opens with the tale of a lonely whale that mistakes a submarine for a potential mate. Excited by the thought that he may finally be able to raise a family, he accompanies it as it heads into danger. As with many of the stories this one does not have a happy ending.

The Parrot And The Boy is one of several stories that depicts a human survivor finding solace in an innocent creature. The eight year old protagonist has managed to keep the bird his late father gave him alive despite complaints from neighbours at his use of scarce food. When the town is fire bombed the boy and his parrot find themselves alone in a shelter. The shock of what has happened renders the boy mute, much to the consternation of his talking pet.

Mothers are lost to young children who, unable to grasp what has happened, wait for their return. In My Home Bunker it is a father who comforts a young boy. Before leaving for the front the man had provided his family with a shelter. Here his son goes to remember the work this took and to play out his games of helping defend his country. Unaware of the succour the child derives from this trench under their house, which she had never felt necessary, the mother assumes it is her thoughts and fears that are shared.

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach depicts a kamikaze pilot as he faces what will be his final flight. Towards the end of the war Japan was turning anything it could think of into a weapon in an attempt to thwart the evil Allies.

With all the men away fighting, children were required to help with the war effort. A Balloon In August describes how even paper and glue were used to create a device that could carry incendiaries into enemy heartlands.

The lack of food became a serious issue and forced people to take risks, creating bad feeling amongst survivors. The Elephant and its Keeper reminds the reader that humans were not the only creatures affected. As well as the provisions required to keep them alive, there was concern about what would happen if bombs destroyed zoo enclosures and dangerous animals escaped. A decree to kill these innocent yet potential predators became challenging to implement.

The Soldier and the Horse is another story that explores the bond between an animal and the young man tasked with keeping it safe that it may be worked beyond its capabilities for the war effort. Bombs do not just kill people.

The stories are haunting and heart-wrenching but bring to the fore the true horror of war and the effect of propaganda in perpetuating its cruelties. Official bodies talk of heroes and honour while people and other creatures starve or die in brutal circumstances.

As we commemorate the fallen this is a timely reminder of the realities of conflict – one that people in other lands are still living with. There is no glory in enabling such suffering, death and destruction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The End Of The Moment We Had

The End Of The Moment We Had, by Toshiki Okada (translated by Sam Malissa), is the latest in a series of Japanese novellas published by Pushkin Press. It contains two short stories that offer snapshots of ordinary lives, streams of consciousness from a variety of voices. They are visceral in their honesty, disturbing in their depiction of life’s quotidian pain.

The first story opens with a group of loud, drunk men travelling on a train. Their boisterous chatter disturbs other passengers yet no complaints are made. The men make their way to a club where a performance is to be held. One of the group had been told of the venue by a girl he met on an outing to the cinema, their conversation awkward in a way it is hard for the girl to get beyond as she watches the man zone out and then walk away.

After the performance at the club one of the group makes his way to a love hotel with another attendee. They spend four nights at this place, talking and having sex, before going their separate ways. They do not tell each other their names.

The narrative includes thoughts and conversations which demonstrate how little individuals understand or even care about many of those they interact with. The time in which the story is set coincides with the American offensive against Iraq and protests are being held in the streets. The characters observe what is happening – to themselves, close to home, and abroad. They remain self-absorbed, savouring their ability to briefly escape what they regard as mundane.

The second story is told from the point of view of a young woman lying in her bed. She has decided to take the day off work for no justifiable reason. As she stretches out her body and observes the grime and mould in her home she considers her husband who is working two jobs but still leaves her frustrated and dissatisfied with the circumstances in which they live. She reads a blog that details interactions at a call centre. She thinks back on times she has lashed out at her husband, wondering why he reacted as he did.

Although the actions of the characters are described, it is their meandering thoughts that are being explored. The stories offer little in the way of resolution – life goes on.

An interesting if somewhat sparse read that depicts recognisable human experiences. There may be a dearth of anything uplifting in the narrative, but the reader can empathise with the everyday tribulations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Yuki Means Happiness

This review was written for and first published by Structo Magazine.

Having enjoyed Alison Jean Lester’s debut, Lillian on Life, I was eager to see where the author would take her readers in this, her second novel. Lillian was a woman of a certain age looking back over decades lived. This latest work is again told as a recollection, this time of a much younger woman looking back to a pivotal few months when she was in her early twenties. From the first sentence of Yuki Means Happiness the reader is aware that the adventure will not end well.

The story opens in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1996. Diana, a trained nurse, is meeting Naoki Yoshimura, the father of two year Yuki. Naoki had employed Diana as a maternity nurse when his wife, Emi, travelled to Boston to give birth. Now he informs her that Emi has left him. He offers Diana a generous salary to work in Tokyo as Yuki’s nanny. Diana is in a relationship but unsure of the commitment she is willing to offer. She regards this job as a chance for adventure and also escape. Key events in her life to date have made her wary of men and their intentions. Her boyfriend is ignorant of this personal history and declares his willingness to wait.

Diana travels to Tokyo unable to speak any Japanese. Naoki’s home is next door to that of his wealthy parents – it was built in their garden. Naoki’s mother is polite but distant. She helps with Yuki when requested and keeps a watchful eye on her son’s interests.

The sense of place evoked as Diana settles into her new role is beautifully rendered. As a young and inexperienced woman Diana finds herself irritated but compliant with the demands made on her time by her employer. She grows to adore Yuki and relishes the insights she is gaining into the culture and expectations of the Japanese.

Life within the Yoshimura household begins to shift when Naoki brings home a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Diana has started meeting up with Naoki’s ex-wife, discovering that their marital breakup was not everything Diana had been led to believe. When she is accused of leaving Yuki in the care of a man, Naoki displays an anger that frightens the young nanny. His subsequent actions suggest Yuki could also be in danger.

The unfolding tale is nuanced and layered, presented with a subtlety that belies its depth. The emotional threads of the novel may be complex, but the writing remains accessible and engaging. Japan is portrayed with warmth and honesty, while its customs, however alluring, are shown to provide a means to exert dominance.

The understated intricacy of the story development is impressive, and the setting, plot and structure are deftly painted. There is much to reflect on after turning the final page.

Yuki Means Happiness / Alison Jean Lester / John Murray / 27 July 2017

Jackie Law runs the book blog Never Imitate and is a regular contributor to Bookmunch. She lives in rural Wiltshire with her family and back garden hens. You can find her on Twitter @followthehens.

Book Review: Ms Ice Sandwich

Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Louise Heal Kawai), is a short novel about a young boy’s infatuation with a woman he observes working behind the sandwich counter at a busy supermarket. He is drawn to her eyes, the lids of which are ice-blue. He is fascinated by her attitude, the aloofness with which she treats her customers being so at odds with the typical obsequiousness of service industry employees in Japan. Over the course of a summer he visits the supermarket each day to watch as she slips sandwiches into bags and hands out change. He saves his money that he may purchase the products she sells and thereby get close enough to speak.

When school resumes he cannot spend as much time watching the woman he has named in his head Ms Ice Sandwich. Nevertheless she remains on his mind. He tells his grandmother all about her and draws pictures of her face, painting in the ice-blue eyelids. Grandma is a good listener as she lies in her bed, unable to interact, waiting to die. The boy’s mother is too distracted by her work to converse about more than daily essentials. Peers have their own obsessions, the reasons for which are rarely understood or appreciated.

The boy has a school friend, Tutti, who enthuses about the foreign movies she watches with her dad. She has invited the boy to join them one evening to share a favourite film although a date has yet to be agreed. The boy would like to tell Tutti about Ms Ice Sandwich, especially when other classmates make derogatory comments about her looks. He cannot find the words. When Tutti finds out how he feels she is saddened but advises him to act.

Each of these characters has family and friends yet are portrayed as isolated. What matters to an individual is put at risk when its importance is shared with someone else. The boy does not wish to be laughed at, to have his feelings mocked. Tutti offers him a place in her world, which he is grateful for even if he cannot match her enthusiasm for her interests.

A deftly written, unusual tale of the changes life inevitably brings. Although emotive it is never sentimental. The story touches on universal attitudes, the desire to belong, and the difficulties of conveying what is deeply felt. It is a thought provoking, satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Guest Post: Living in Japan by Lesley Downer

Today I am delighted to welcome Lesley Downer, author of a quartet of novels set in nineteenth century Japan. This was a time when the country was convulsed by civil war and virtually overnight transformed from rule by the shoguns into a society that looked to the west. Lesley has written that:

“At the end of the war the Women’s Palace was closed down for ever and the three thousand women who had lived there, some of them all their lives, to serve the shogun, were turned out onto the streets. I wondered what became of them all, for most were from families on the losing side, who had been defeated in the war. But all were sworn to secrecy and few ever revealed anything of what had gone on behind the closed doors of the Palace. My imagination went to work and thus this series of novels was born.”

The Shogun’s Queen is the fourth book to be written but serves as a prequel to the series (you may read my review here). Knowing that Lesley has a personal affection for the country I asked if she could share some of her experiences.

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Hello, Jackie. First of all let me say how happy I am to post on your blog today. I greatly appreciate it.

You asked me about my experiences of Japan and how these influence my fiction …

In Kyoto recently with my husband, we visited the Golden Temple, made legendary in Yukio Mishima’s famous novel The Golden Pavilion. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful building, walled with gold leaf, light as air, almost floating in the middle of a lily pond, with delicate balconies surrounding it and a golden phoenix perched on the top.

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‘Japan is a very aesthetic place,’ was my husband’s response.

It’s quite true. For me the seed of Japan was planted more than thirty years ago when I read Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. He wrote of the Japanese aesthetic approach to life. In Britain, similar-sized handmade pots by a particular potter all cost the same. In Japan you can have ten similar-sized pots. Nine will cost Y1,000 (£5). In one something will have happened in the firing. The glaze will be little different, maybe there’ll be an unexpected flash of colour, what looks like a flaw that to the Japanese eye gives it beauty. That pot will cost Y10,000 or maybe Y100,000.

Once the seed was planted I realised that a lot of things pointed towards Japan. I was eating Japanese food, reading Japanese literature in translation. At the time I was teaching English to foreign students in Oxford. One, Yoshi, was Japanese. He wanted private classes but had no money to pay for them. So we did an exchange and he began teaching me Japanese.

When I applied for a job teaching English in Japan, Yoshi warned me that behind every temple there was a factory. But I didn’t believe him. I found myself in the grey industrial city of Gifu, in autumn, when all the rice has been harvested and the paddy fields look brown and threadbare. I’d told my Japanese interviewer that I wanted to be not in Tokyo but the countryside. But I hadn’t realised that the Japanese word for ‘countryside’, inaka, just means the provinces, anywhere that isn’t Tokyo. It means ‘the sticks’ – and that was where I was. I was in the backwater of a backwater – I was in the suburbs.

My first year was tough. Most people in Gifu had never seen a foreigner before. I’d travelled on my own; I’d been a lone backpacker. But I’d never felt so isolated. It was three months before a colleague informed me that there were a couple of other foreigners in this city of half a million people. I rushed with huge relief to meet them. They became good friends.

My colleagues all took care of me. In my time off they took me to see sword making, local festivals, paper making, cormorant fishing. But I still found myself on my own a lot.

I taught myself Japanese. (As we were the only foreigners there were no Japanese teachers to teach us – and while people could read English very few spoke it fluently.) I was a bit of a star. I was invited onto Gifu television to talk about my impressions of Gifu and local colleges asked me to give them conversation classes.

I immersed myself in Japanese literature and in its wildly romantic history. I read the tale of the eleventh century Genji the Shining Prince. I read of samurai armies battling, of a hero who led his band of warriors straight down a vertical cliff face to attack the enemy camped on the beach and how that enemy – including the baby emperor – fled into the water and were drowned, which is why the crabs’ shells there look like samurai helmets to this day. I went to productions of kabuki and Noh theatre, watched dramas about spurned women who turn into terrifying ghosts who moan and tear their long black hair out, about warriors bringing back an enemy head to present to their lord in a head box (a crucial piece of warrior equipment) …  There was plenty to fuel my imagination, enough to fill a lifetime of writing.

I also hitchhiked. Japan is an entirely safe country and people are extremely kind. By the end of my first year I’d been up to the north of the country and down to the far south and fallen in love with Japan.

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Lesley when following Basho’s Narrow Road

Five years later I finally came home. But I had unfinished business. I’d always wanted to follow the seventeenth century haiku poet Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North through northern Japan. So I went back. Naturally I hitchhiked. I visited some of those legendary places I’d read about in literature, such as the bend in the river where the giant Benkei stood, arrows poking out of him like a porcupine, holding off a thousand of the enemy single handed. There, centuries later, Basho sat down on his straw hat and wept and composed a haiku. And even more centuries on I too stood right there and breathed the same air and looked at the same river.

On that journey I stayed with farmers in remote farmhouses, a bit like B & Bs. They all knew the history of their small villages and shared my love of Basho. I met poets in small country towns and we wrote poetry together.

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Lesley with poets

Modern Tokyo is a thrilling place. People that visit Japan are always a bit puzzled. The country looks so western with its skyscrapers yet somehow it feels different, foreign. I’ve found that seeing Japan through the lens of history makes it look entirely different. When I know the history a dingy little temple in the country suddenly comes alive. And Japan is so full of stories that cry out to be told that I could spend the rest of my life doing just that.

For me one of the most heart-rending stories is that of Princess Atsu who went to Tokyo, which was then called Edo, to marry the shogun. And that’s the story that I tell in The Shogun’s Queen.

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The Shogun’s Queen is published by Bantam Press and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Shogun’s Queen

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The Shogun’s Queen, by Lesley Downer, tells the story of Okatsu, the daughter of a minor Japanese lord, who is taken from everything and everyone she knows to become wife of the most powerful ruler in the land, the Shogun. It is set in the mid nineteenth century when Japan was invaded by those they referred to as barbarians – well armed traders sent from countries in Europe and America. The cherished culture and rituals of the Japanese way of life was thereby changed forever.

Okatsu has never known poverty but, as the political machinations of the lords and princes of her region propel her ever higher up the strictly preserved social and political hierarchy, she discovers wealth beyond comprehension. Those who have acquired these riches and the power it brings are loath to risk relinquishing it. They will stop at nothing to strengthen and secure their position.

As a woman Okatsu has little choice in the course her life must take. Whilst she accepts this she also rails against the loneliness she must endure. There are few she can trust. She is watched constantly and is required to obey. When she grows close to her husband this is seen as a threat as well as a distraction by those who demand her compliance, whatever the cost to herself.

The world depicted is close to unimaginable for modern sensibilities and offers an insight into a way of life that those living it fought to preserve despite the gross inequalities. The powerful men kept palaces of women locked up for their own personal use. When a ruler died this household was required to take holy orders and spend their remaining days praying for their master’s spirit. Some of the women were chosen for their youth and beauty yet never spent time with the man who owned them and could never belong to another. They endured a life filled with sniping and backstabbing, locked up forever in a luxurious prison.

The descriptions of the barbarians are particularly interesting – how what is unknown is feared, as is change. There were plenty who were intrigued by the gifts presented by the invaders – telescopes, cameras, steam engines, weaponry – but they regarded the smelly, hairy, meat eating giants as uncivilised if dangerous buffoons.

I found the pace of the story slow at times, as was court life for the women at the time. There was much repetition as Okatsu grappled with her assigned quest, her loneliness and her feelings of betrayal. The treatment of children in the Shogun’s household was particularly difficult to comprehend.

The story is a fictionalised account of true events. Each of the characters existed and their roles are as accurately portrayed as remaining accounts allow. The author has a personal fondness for the area and was meticulous in her research.

For those interested in Japanese history and in the effects of the spread of western influences around the world this is a worthwhile read. As a story I would have preferred a tighter telling, but it is a fascinating window into a way of life where change was opposed, yet where it is hard not to regard such change as a progression.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bantam Press.