A Book Review of “A Pale View of Hills” by Kazuo Ishiguro
(In which I inevitably show that I am an English major.)
If the name Kazuo Ishiguro sounds familiar, you are most likely associating his name to his more recent books, such as Never Let Me Go, which was made into a star-studded movie (the handsome Garfield, the pouty Keira Knightly, and the doe-like Carey Mulligan) in 2012. If you are familiar with Never Let Me Go, you will find A Pale View of Hills and Ishiguro’s earlier works remarkably different. Even if you have not heard of Ishiguro or his works, his style will draw you into his dream-like worlds.
Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan before he and his family moved to Britain, where he now resides. A Pale View of Hills was his first novel, and it won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature. Like his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s earlier works are marked by his interest in Asian identity within a global sphere.
A Pale View of Hills certainly would fall under the category of literature of Diaspora that concerns the movement or migration from an established ancestral home. Its first person narrator, Etsuko, a Japanese woman who now resides in England, contemplates of her first daughter’s recent suicide. And yet, she does not think of her daughter at all, but rather of the torn life in post-World War II Japan. Etsuko focuses on her encounters with a woman named Sachiko and her daughter Mariko during the summer of her first pregnancy. Although the book set is far from Ishiguro’s own past, it demonstrates his early interest in creating an Asia that fits with the fragmentations of his own memory and his present. The book’s themes include (but are not limited to) the past, trauma, guilt, regret, motherhood, amnesia, forgetting, and forced forgetting. Etsuko recalls the traumatic time of rebuilding on this wasteland after the dropping of the bomb, which invokes the notion of personal rebuilding. No doubt Etsuko remembers this summer of Nagasaki because of her daughter Keiko’s recent suicide, which the narrative avoids in a dream-like manner.
The book is a page-turner, certainly. Once you begin it is difficult to put it down. Fans of Freud will certainly enjoy this novel, with its use of the uncanny. Freud’s The Uncanny delves into the definition and source of this feeling by first examining the German word unheimlich (meaning “uncanny” in English, but also corresponding to “unhomely”) and its rooting from the word heimlich (meaning “homely,” or the familiar) (132). Freud examines the etymology and usage of both unheimlich and heimlich to reveal how the two words become progressively more ambivalent until they merge with another. Thus, the uncanny (unheimlich, unfamiliar, or “the unhomely”) somehow also contains traits of the familiar (heimlich, the homely”). Another way to think about the uncanny is when an object appears alive or animate, and vice versa when a living object appears dead or inanimate. Therefore, we would find a moving doll uncanny and a corpse uncanny. A machine that looks like a human and moves like a human can be very uncanny because we associate objects with a lack of movement and humanity. The inversion is equally uncanny, and in the book, that figure is most likely Mariko, Sachiko’s daughter, who is often expressionless with her vacant and preserving stare.
Freud describes several characteristics of the uncanny, with doubling and doppelgangers, repetition (of words, phrases, or places), and of course repression – all of which you will find in A Pale View of Hills. Because of this, the aesthetic of the book is one of a pale view of floating hills – something foggy and elusive. Ishiguro’s style is one of dream-like logic and restraint, with its words that begin to take on a sinister tone by sheer unadulterated repetition. There is also a lack of emotional descriptions (such as “she said playfully” or “he laughed bitterly“) that makes the characters difficult to read, making them seem surreal. All the while, the avoiding of the central theme of her daughter’s suicide lurks in the background until Estuko can no longer completely elude it. She seems to place a fog over her memory and thoughts to repress any unpleasant thoughts of why Keiko killed herself, but while she distracts herself with the summer of Nagasaki, the characters and story are quite synonymous to her own. The content and the style leaves the narrative drenched in eerie creepiness. Personally, I cannot stand anything scary or creepy, but this book was terribly intriguing, as you wait for the fog to be lifted. It does – at the very climax of the book, all in one single word. “We.”