Delicate, elegiac, mysterious, haunting. If those words describe the kind of novel you like, A PALE VIEW OF THE HILLS is for you. It’s on my list of The Most Important Novels in My Life, which I’ve been revisiting during the coronavirus pandemic, and a recent rereading of Ishiguro’s first novel reminds me that it belongs.
I first came to this novel in 1993, while I was working on a novel of my own, and Ishiguro’s writing, and in particular, his confused and unreliable narrator, Etsuko, influenced me.
The novel opens with Etsuko, who moved years ago from the ruins of post-WWII Nagasaki to England, receiving a visit from her daughter, Niki, who lives with friends in London. There was another daughter, Keiko, from Etsuko’s first marriage in Japan. Keiko was troubled, never fit in properly in England, and eventually hung herself.
The narrative consists of Etsuko’s memories of her life in Nagasaki, framed by the present-day visit of her daughter.
In Nagasaki, Etsuko is pregnant with Keiko. She strikes up a friendship with Sachiko, a somewhat older woman who has a difficult daughter, Mariko, and much of the novel consists of unreliable memories about Sachiko, who claims an American man is going to take her to the U.S.
The mystery, the haunting, comes from Etsuko confusing memories of her friend’s daughter and her own daughter, from repeated references to hanging and even the appearance several times of a coil of rope. It comes from the uneasiness Niki feels while visiting her mother—perhaps it’s the ghost of her half-sister, or her mother’s unspoken disapproval of her daughter’s lifestyle. We never know what became of Etsuko’s first husband, Jiro, and whether the American man who was going to take Sachiko out of Japan, was actually the man who takes Etsuko.
The novel is less than 200 pages, but it’s no page-turner. It moves slowly and with a delicate, understated narrative formality the way all Ishiguro novels do. It was his first novel, and Ishiguro has gone on to write much bigger and more important books (REMAINS OF THE DAY, NEVER LET ME GO), but I could see back then, and still see now, the Nobel-prize winner in waiting.