Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel, A Pale View of Hills, is told in the first-person point of view of Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in the English countryside. It opens with her recalling a visit from her youngest daughter, Niki. During the course of Niki’s visit, we learn Etsuko’s eldest daughter, Keiko, hung herself. The conversation between mother and daughter is strained, the tension palpable as each tries to avoid discussing Keiko’s suicide.
Niki’s visit prompts Etsuko to recall Sachiko and Mariko, a mother and daughter she befriended while living with her first husband in Nagasaki shortly after the end of the war. The narrative subsequently unfolds in two separate threads—Etsuko’s conversations with Niki during her visit at her home in England and her bourgeoning friendship with Sachiko and Mariko in Nagasaki. Etsuko alternates between the two threads, moving backward and forward in time and location as she does so. But the thrust of her narrative takes place in Nagasaki. As she gets deeper and deeper recalling her life in Nagasaki, we sense something sinister is happening although we can’t quite put our finger on it.
Etsuko and Niki hover around each other as if they are afraid of getting too close or of saying too much. Both are impacted by Keiko’s suicide. And both feel there is a disturbing presence in her vacant bedroom. But neither one is willing to discuss the issue openly. They talk in superficialities and avoid meaningful dialogue. The air between them bristles with tension by what is left unsaid.
Similarly, Etsuko’s relationship with Sachiko and Mariko is fraught with tension by what remains unspoken. Sachiko is a dysfunctional and irresponsible mother who fails to provide a stable environment for her daughter. And Mariko is a disturbed child who behaves erratically, enclosed in her own little world. Etsuko shows greater concern for the child’s well-being and safety than her own mother, but she never confronts Sachiko about her parental neglect. Instead, she concurs with every bit of nonsense Sachiko speaks, couching her response with politeness. The situation is unsettling as the child clearly manifests problematic behaviors.
Ishiguro captures the undercurrent of tension in both narrative threads. More often than not, the characters speak at each other instead of to each other. They give the impression they’re holding something back—that there is more on their minds than they care to reveal. As the novel progresses, what is said pales in significance to what remains unsaid. And what is unsaid is never disclosed. The final pages of the novel confirm the clues scattered throughout: Etsuko is unreliable as a narrator and is, conceivably, a traumatized, guilt-ridden individual. But even with that knowledge, we are left with more questions than answers as it is never made clear what happened, why it happened, and to whom did it happen.
It is a testament to Ishiguro’s consummate skill as a writer that he produced a seemingly straightforward novel in language that is deceptively simple but rich in an ambiguity that becomes fully apparent only in its conclusion. With a few choice words strategically located at the end, he turns the entire narrative on its head, opening it up to a variety of interpretations.