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A Pale View of Hills ()

Granta Best British Novelists (1983)

Etsuko, the narrator of A Pale View of Hills, is a native of Nagasaki, who left her Japanese husband and Japan for England and an English husband.  In the story she must come to grips with the suicide of her daughter, Keiko,  by the first marriage.  She does so by recalling the Summer in Nagasaki when she was pregnant with Keiko, and her own friendship there with Sachiko, who, having lost her husband and a son (in the bombing ?), insists on moving forward optimistically, deluding herself into believing that an American named Frank will take her away to a new life in the States.

The tension that emerges from the narrative comes from the several different strategies that characters adopt : there's Sachiko's almost absurd forward-looking optimism; there's the backward-looking nostalgia of Etsuko's father-in-law, which excuses much of the cultural pathology which led to Japan's annihilation in WWII; and there's the stasis of her husband, who seems unable to move forward or to deal with the past.  From Etsuko's life choices it is obvious that she eventually chose Sachiko's path, but Keiko's suicide suggests the problematic nature of Etsuko's decision to choose a Western life.  Etsuko's reminiscences of life in Japan are generally favorable, in particular the visual portrait of Japan is all done in dreamy pastels, the "pale view" of the title.  And in the novel's closing pages, as Etsuko's younger daughter disparages the submissive role of women in Japan, Etsuko responds that :

    It's not a bad thing at all, the old Japanese way.

This suggests that she may regret the decisions that she has made, but the story ends with a surprising revelation about the relationships of the various characters and with Etsuko, despite her own regrets,  seeming to at least accept the enthusiasm with which her daughter Nicki embraces the West's cultural freedom.

Ishiguro's first novel is similar in narrative style to the much better known Remains of the Day.  Both stories are told by somewhat unreliable narrators, who are certainly giving us an incomplete version of events, though we don't know whether they are lying to themselves at the same time.  Remains of the Day benefits greatly from two elements that give it a dramatic tension which is sadly lacking here.  First, there's the rise of Nazi Germany in the background, which we know will eventually make Lord Darlington's efforts to keep England out of the War seem somehow tainted.  Second, there's the almost unbearable non-courtship/courtship between Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton.  In Pale View, we'd sort of like to understand the suicide, but it's never an imperative.

In light of the fact that Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954, and that his family emigrated to England when he was six, it is impossible to avoid viewing this book as at least something of a self-portrait.  It is certainly easy to understand that he would feel himself to be an outsider to both his native and his adopted cultures, and as a conservative, I'd be the last one to dismiss either someone's feelings of nostalgia for a lost past or their intuition that the freedom to be found in the West often comes at the price of a  kind of cultural atomization, but the Japan that he describes here doesn't seem to bear much relation to the real nation.  The "pale view" is perhaps too filtered to take into account exactly the kind of racist, militarist, static society that Japan had developed into by the time of WWII, and how little it has done in the ensuing years to reinvigorate itself.

Ishiguro himself has said :

    In some ways I think that nostalgia can be quite a positive emotion. It does allow us to picture a
    better world. It's kind of an emotional sister of idealism.

That's quite true, but a nostalgia which is uninformed by reality is just as dangerous as idealism, which by definition is always a stranger to reality.  For all the faults of modern Britain, and they are legion, it has to be better than the Japan of the 1940's.

The novel is interesting chiefly for the clues it reveals about Ishiguro's psychology and for the patterns it establishes for his subsequent writing.  But it is entirely too subtle and languidly paced to hold the reader's interest (this unsubtle reader's anyway), and the past it longs for is too imperfect for us to easily share in the longing.


Grade: (C)



Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of When We Were Orphans
    -TRIBUTE : Gentle giant :  Malcolm Bradbury has died, aged 68. Kazuo Ishiguro, a former student, recalls a generous and inspiring  teacher (November 28, 2000 The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW : Wednesday, October 11, 2000 at the Writer's Guild Theatre, Los Angeles (F.X. Feeney)
    -INTERVIEW : A Fugitive from the Past : Mixing memory and desire, Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel [When We Were Orphans] returns to the scene of innocence lost (Atlantic Monthly)
    -Interview: Kazuo Ishiguro (Lewis Burke Frumkes, Writer Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW : with Kazuo Ishiguro (Linda Richards, January Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW : Chaos As Metaphor: An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro (Peter Oliva, Pages on Kensington)
    -INTERVIEW : Kazuo Ishiguro (ALDEN MUDGE , Book Page)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : with Kazuo Ishiguro (Ramona Koval, Books and Writing)
    -INTERVIEW : with Kazuo Ishiguro (LESLIE FORBES, The Globe and Mail )
    - : Kazuo Ishiguro Page
    -Kazuo Ishiguro: An Overview
    -Kazuo Ishiguro (
    -Kazuo Ishiguro (1954 - ) (Booker McConell Prize Pages)(Bradley C. Shoop University of Tennessee--Chattanooga)
    -the Internet Public Library : Online Literary Criticism Collection : Kazuo Ishiguro (1954 - )
    -PROFILE : Who Is The Unconsoled? :  A Profile of Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (Barbara Ohno, Mars Hill Review, Summer 1996)
    -PROFILE : Between two worlds : Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki and raised in the home counties. (Suzie Mackenzie, March 25, 2000, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE : A Case of Cultural Misperception (SUSAN CHIRA, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : An Artist of the World : Born in Nagasaki, raised in Great Britain, Kazuo Ishiguro talks about Japanese culture, English taste and American rock 'n' roll. (Helen M. Jerome, Book Magazine)
    -PROFILE :  In the land of memory :  Kazuo Ishiguro remembers when (Adam Dunn, CNN Interactive)
    -PROFILE : Kazuo Ishiguro (Ellen Uchimiya, Central Booking)
    -LIST : Granta's 20 Best British Novelists, 1993
    -ESSAY : The Remains of the Day : Regret and Repression (Susan Jensen, Suite
    -ESSAY : Zen Comedy in Commonwealth Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day
    -ESSAY : 'Imaginary Homelands Revisited  in the Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro (Rocio G. DAVIS, Universidad de Navarra)
    -ESSAY : Americanizing Japan  (Neena Gill, Road to East Asia :  A journal on contemporary East Asian literature in English, Written by students   at Founders College, York University, June-August, 1997)
    -ESSAY : From submission to resistance (Sarah Tan, Road to East Asia, June-August, 1996)
    -READERS GUIDE : to The Unconsoled (Random House)
    -ARCHIVES : "ishiguro" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "kazuo ishiguro" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "kazuo ishiguro" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro (Carly Wells)
    -REVIEW : of A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro  (Julie Allen)
    -REVIEW : of The Remains of the Day By Kazuo Ishiguro (MICHIKO KAKUTANI , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE REMAINS OF THE DAY By Kazuo Ishiguro (Lawrence Graver, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Jehan Weerasinghe , The Literary Page)
    -REVIEW : of AN ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD By Kazuo Ishiguro (Kathryn Morton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE UNCONSOLED By Kazuo Ishiguro (Louis Menand, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Unconsoled (Paul Gray, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of The Unconsoled By Kazuo Ishiguro (Lauren Walsh, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW : of The Unconsoled (Cynthia Kirkby, The Brunswickan)
    -REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (Michael Gorra, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Pico Iyer: Foreign Affair, NY Review of Books
               When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
    -REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (Gavin McNett, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (Pam Perry, CNN)
    -REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans  (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (Maya Jaggi, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (Philip Hensher, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans : Ishiguro's infatuation with Englishness deadens tone of 'Orphans' : The author of `Remains of the Day' looks to the East once again in a perhaps overly ponderous exploration of the impact of history on people's lives (Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times)
    -BOOK LIST : "This is it!"  : The author of "The Blue Flower" picks five novels that rocked her world. (PENELOPE FITZGERALD, Salon)


Hello. I saw your comprehensive page on Ishiguro, and thought I'd tell you that your link to my interview is dead.

It can now be found at:

Feel free to link to that spot, if you wish. Thanks, Peter Oliva

- Peter Oliva

- May-04-2005, 14:17