A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

On clearer days, I could see far beyond the trees on the opposite bank of the river, a pale outline of hills visible against the clouds. It was not an unpleasant view, and on occasions it brought me a rare sense of relief from the emptiness of those long afternoons I spent in that apartment.

It seems a perfect day to be reading such a book, A Pale View of Hills, with the pale view outside of my own front window. The atmosphere within my living room contributes to the atmosphere Kazuo Ishiguro has created, one of mystery and sorrow. One of nostalgia and regret.

The English are fond of their idea that our race (Japanese) has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary; for that was all they reported, that she was Japanese and that she had hung herself in her room.

Etsuko has lost her eldest daughter to suicide, and at first that is what I thought the novel was going to be about. But, it is really Etsuko’s reminiscences about the past, about her friend who lived in a small cottage in Nagasaki with her daughter, Mariko.

Sachiko is a mysterious woman. She laughingly avoids direct questions, she seems unperturbed by the way that her daughter disappears, or that her daughter is able to visit with a woman whom no one else can see. She lets Mariko stay out after dark for long hours, far longer than I could ever have allowed, and in the end, breaks her promise to Mariko about keeping her little kittens. In Sachiko’s mind, the small, dirty animals could never come to their new home, following an American man who will become the new husband, the new father.

It doesn’t matter how old someone is, it’s what they’ve experienced that counts.

She asserts that her daughter, Mariko, will be fine in America.

It’s a better place for a child to grow up. And she’ll have far more opportunities there; life’s much better for a woman in America.

But perhaps this is what she tells herself, in trying to believe that she is doing the right thing in leaving Japan. Parts of the novel refer to the old way of life in Japan, when the elders taught respect, when women followed their husband’s wishes. Ishiguro points to the loudness of Americans in their big cars, a point I feel acutely myself, and even the English way of life is brought in for contrast.

In Japanese cities, much more so than in England, the restaurant owners, the teahouse proprietors, the shopkeepers all seem to will the darkness to fall; long before the daylight has faded, lanterns appear in the windows, lighted signs above doorways.

Ultimately we close the book, turning the last page, without much knowledge of Etsuko’s daughter or her death. In fact, one can’t help wondering if this daugher, Keiko, and Mariko are so similar they could be the same girl. Surely when Etsuko was talking to Mariko she promised her, that if things were terrible, they could return. Is Etsuko confusing the events of her life? Or, is her memory rearranges things to make them more palatable?

This is a lovely novel, a brief and atmospheric story of a mother’s love for her child; a mother’s hopes for the future while turning over the past in her mind. Have you read it? Do you have another interpretation? Please tell me in a comment below, and let me know if you have a review to which I can link.

I read it for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11, but also to think of Kazuo Ishiguro as he received the Nobel Prize for Literature last week.

Find another review from BookManiac here.

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31 thoughts on “A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. Wow, that was quick! I’ve only gotten up to about page 50, and while I know that I’ve read this book before, I somehow cannot recall any part of it, so it’s really like reading it for the first time!

    I think you’re right about the atmosphere that Ishiguro creates with the book—mysterious and sad, somehow a little dejected, almost as if resigned to accept that life is just out of our hands.

    I can’t comment too much at this moment, but I AM hoping to finish it in the coming week. Am so happy that I decided to join this read-along (my first!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michelle, I am so glad you’re reading it, too! A Pale View of Hills turned out to be a great autumnal read with its eerie, unsettling atmosphere, and the questions it leaves when the reader is finished. I am looking forward to seeing your point of view about Mariko and Keiko; do you think they represent the same person (displaced from Japan into another country)?

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  2. Not read Ishiguro for a long while, so was pleasantly surprised by his win (as was he). The quote about the Japanese willing the darkness to fall reminds me of Jun’ichuro Tanizaki’s In Praise Of Shadow a wonderful small book which discusses & contrasts the difference between cultures & light & shade. I wrote a post on it a few years ago.

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    1. You have such clear recollection of the Japanese books you have read. After awhile they start to blend in my mind. I know I haven’t read In Praise of Shadows, but I do recall you writing about it. Was it somewhat ambiguous in its interpretation of the characters’ memories or place in time? I find Japanese writers so skilled at conveying a mysterious atmosphere or a slice of life with several possible interpretations. I know Ishiguro is considered British by many, but I cannot help seeing his wonderful Japanese qualities.

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  3. I haven’t read this but I enjoyed your review very much, and am adding this book to my wishlist. I love the photo as well. Excellent review! I’m expecting “my” Kazuo Ishiguro book soon, and am eager to begin reading it!

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      1. Bellezza, the book arrived and I’m reading it. It’s intriguing so far. I plan to post a review of it, although I’m not sure when that will be–it could be November!

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        1. November is good! Im still listening to Remains of the Day on audio as I drive to work. I hope you enjoy A Pale View of Hills. It is strange and lovely in a way I have found common to Japanese writing.

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  4. I didn’t sign up to read this with you because I had already signed up for a Slade House readalong, but that book turned out to be fairly short, so maybe I can jump in on this one, too! It sounds perfect for this time of year. I had a long, quiet afternoon yesterday, for the first time in a while!

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    1. Slade House was so good! I read it a few autumns ago, and I thought it wonderfully mysterious. This, too, is an intriguing work, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you have time to read it.

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  5. I haven’t read this book but I added The Unconsoled to my pile after his Nobel win. I’ve read The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go and both to me, had this cold, sterile quality to the writing. I’m curious if he always writes that way. I kind of like it but it’s off putting at first.

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    1. I know what you meant about the cold, sterile quality. Personally, I think of it as somewhat aloof, or removed, and I don’t find it common to Ishiguro alone. The Unconsoled is my favorite of them all, but I caution you against thinking it will be a story as we have become accustomed to reading in America. It does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end; rather it tells a story that has me thinking about it long after I finished reading. I’d love to talk about it with you when you finish.

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  6. Ishiguro is an author I’ve yet to read, but your review has me convinced to start with this novel.

    I love that you can sit in your living room and gaze out at the river. We both love the water, don’t we?

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    1. I’m so glad this review sparked an interest in you! The book is short, for one thing, so you won’t have to give an overwhelming time commitment (such as I’ve found myself in with The Stand. Fortunately, that is going well so far.). But, it is so eerie, and almost mind-bending by the time the end comes around. As I said to Ti, I’d love to discuss it with you if you do read it.

      As for water, that is one of our loves indeed. I feast on your photos of the ocean spray and cliffs and coves. Or, such as they appear to me. xo

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  7. I feel too a parallel between the way Etsuko and Sachiko acted.
    It seem Etsuko was belonging to the old tradition, Etsuko accept to live with Ogata-San, but she seem to be attracted by Sachiko way of life. Sachiko seem so different, modern, free, self-sufficient. Even if she is wrong, she persuades herself and Etsuko.
    At this time, action take place in Nagasaki – after the atomic bomb, during american occupation. It’s the end of the old tradition of Japan and a new world, a new culture (education, vote, woman) is raising.
    But only a few words about Keiko, Keiko is a ghost from the past. Her suicide seem to be nearly inevitable ( I was not very optimistic about Mariko life in America). And Etsuko seem to accept it :
    “But you see, Niki, I knew all along. I knew all along she wouldn’t be happy over here. But I decided to bring her just the same.”
    ‘Ghost from the past’ , because it seem that many things are untold, why Etsuko don’t want to be reminded by the past. Why, selfishly Etsuko don’t want the name of her daughter remind her Japan.

    I hope not to be too clumsy in my reply 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved reading your reply! It’s interesting how you call Keiko a ghost from the past. She is ghostlike because she is so elusive; we know nothing about her but that she has caused her mother grief. I, too, did not think she would do very well by coming to America, just as Mariko will probably suffer.

      Do you think that the woman Mariko saw, whom no one else could see, is to be understood as Etsuko? It seemed that way to me. This is a book I should reread, as I’m sure there are many subtle clues which would become more apparent the second time around.

      Thank you for reading with me!

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    1. Thank you so much, Sylvie. Our house is not fancy, or big, but those things don’t matter very much to me. What I love is a beautiful view and a peaceful environment. I know you understand that, and feel the same. xoxo

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  8. I read this when I first ‘discovered’ Ishiguro years ago. Now that he’s won the ultimate literary prize, it’s time to reread his works. I haven’t read his latest. Have you? I’ve read that it’s a bit different from his previous ones.

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    1. His latest book was published in 2015, The Buried Giant, which I listened to on audio. Because I’m not as good of a listener as I am a reader, I didn’t get as much out of it as I thought I would. Now I’m listening to Remains of the Day, which won the Man Booker, but my favorite is The Unconsoled. I still have a few more to read to complete all he’s written. I was so glad to see him win, although I wouldn’t have objected to Haruki Murakami winning. 😉

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