Modern Masters

A Pale View of Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro – 0/10

“Young women these days are all so headstrong”

Continuing the Japanese theme from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, this 200-page novel is set predominantly in Nagasaki. We do flit back and forth between 1980s England and 1950s Japan, but the main focus is definitely post-war Japan.

I struggled with this so much – I was surprised that I finished it. Ishiguro being such a revered name, I kept assuming that I would happen across the marvellous piece of writing… and it never happened. There appears to me to be nothing at all special about the writing – the sparse style (which I’ve already admitted I don’t get on with) was devoid of any beauty or flourish, and the characters were difficult and unsympathetic; I couldn’t really ever get to grips with any of them.

In this book, nothing is obvious. We have to deduce that Etsuko is a widow; once she goes back to Japan in her memories we have to deduce that she was in the early stages of pregnancy from “At that point in my life, I was still wanting to be left alone”; and a romance for Etsuko before she married Jiro is briefly alluded to but further clarification is not forthcoming. The whole book is written in a very “softly, softly” approach – the same approach that the conversations take – never broaching a topic directly, but instead coming at it from a number of different angles, coming back to it again and again if the conversational partner is avoiding it. I found this style really frustrating, although (while I know little of Japanese culture), I’m assuming that this is considered polite in Japan – not to address a topic directly means that a person can never be forced into speaking of something?

Niki, the English-raised daughter, is in a sense more direct, but she too is quite apathetic, a pale rendition of a person. Etsuko and Niki spend long periods talking at cross-purposes, serving to highlight the generational and cultural chasm between them. Etsuko has a strange relationship with her father-in-law (it seems to pre-date her husband), but this is never clarified; and as for her husband, who seems to be a lazy, ungrateful, rude piece of nothing, with boorish, misogynist friends:

“That’s typical of women. They don’t understand politics. They think they can choose the country’s leaders the same way they choose dresses.”

I haven’t even got started on Sachiko and Mariko, who both behave truly bizarrely throughout the novel – I’ve made a list of the ways in which Sachiko acts strangely, both towards her daughter, for whom she seems to care not a bit, and towards Etsuko, apparently her only friend.

I just don’t understand. Can someone enlighten me, or is this a dud?


7 thoughts on “A Pale View of Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro – 0/10”

  1. I can’t help because I haven’t read any Ishiguro, although I would like to. One of those names you feel obliged to read. Have you read any other Ishiguro, and will you? Or has he blotted his copy book beyond all hope of redemption?

    (But I did like your parallel between the indirect style and Japanese culture… that might be reason enough to read it 🙂 )

    1. I haven’t read any other Ishiguro but I really really want to read Never Let Me Go (before I go and see the movie, and I desperately want to see the movie!) so I will read that independently of my experience of this.

  2. I would suggest that you don’t give up on Ishiguro just yet, but be careful which you choose and perhaps stick to library copies. If you find one you really like, you can then buy it with confidence.

    I loved his novel of repressed emotion “The Remains of the Day” – the one about a butler that was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. At the other end of the love-hate spectrum, I did not get on at all with his surreal dream-like “The Unconsoled”. The rest of his work scored somewhere in between.

    Have you seen that Savidge Reads has been talking about “A Pale View of Hills” this week too?

    1. Yes, I fully intend to read Never Let Me Go, regardless of my feelings about this one – and Simon Savidge wrote about Pale View of Hill on the same day as me last week! What can I say, great minds think alike…

  3. I felt the same way you did about the book. I kept waiting for something amazing, but it was all so sad and understated. The lack of communication between mother and daughter was heartbreaking. As you noted, his way of writing may be very Japanese and we westerners have to struggle to “get it”.

  4. So long since I’ve read this that I can’t add anything specific. I have read every Ishiguro book, bar one The unconsoled, and so am an out and out fan. Love his tone – the way his characters tend to be self-deluded. They are often so serious but are often so lost in the trees they don’t see the forest. This probably doesn’t help.

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