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a former friend of Jiro’s has written an article criticising Ogata and the education system the older man bemoans has been replaced by American style teaching.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.