A Pale View of Hills is Ishiguro’s first novel, the narrative is quiet, subtle and must be read slowly if you don’t want to miss anything. The story starts with Etsuko, a Japanese woman who is living in England , reflecting on the suicide of her elder daughter, Keiko, while her younger daughter, Niki, has come to see her. One night Etsuko has a dream which reminds her of a woman she met in Nagasaki and then, she starts retelling her own memories. The memory of a woman she knew named Sachiko, who lived in a cottage miraculously spared by the bomb with her young daughter Mariko.
Etsuko remembers Sachiko’s desperate aimlessness. We know than an American man, identified only as Frank, has offered to take Sachiko and Mariko to America, and while the little girl is obviously made miserable by the idea of both America and Frank. Through the story this little girl disappointment is more and more evident and her mother’s behaviour doesn’t help as she doesn’t seem to care about her own daughter. It’s then when Atsuko decides to become her childminder.
On the night before Sachiko leaves Nagasaki to go to America, Mariko pleads with her mother to bring her kittens with her. Sachiko’s response is to admonish Mariko that the kittens are only animals, no more, and that she mustn’t develop foolish attachments to creatures. She then takes the crate of kittens from Mariko and drowns them in the river while Mariko and Etsuko watch. As a reader is shocking the passivity of Atsuko who doesn’t react and doesn’t try to do something to save the kittens and prevent the small child from seeing this act of cruelty.
This passivity begins to make sense in the next scene, as Etsuko and Sachiko come back to the cottage, then Etsuko takes the lantern to go and find Mariko. When she finds the little girl near the river bank in misery, the narrative abruptly changes from third person to first person, and while there is no doubt it is Etsuko who has left with the lantern to find Mariko, she speaks to her as her own daughter, telling her to be brave, that tomorrow they are leaving to America, that if it’s terrible they can come back to Japan, but that Frank will treat them well.
Finally Etsuko, in the present (not flashback) day makes reference to Niki and Keiko being half-sisters, with different fathers and it becomes clear that Etsuko’s memory of Sachiko and Mariko is really her own memory of her raising Keiko in Nagasaki – before they moved to Britain to be with her new husband. Etsuko remembers the terrible mother she was to her first-born daughter, and now, in the present-day, that Keiko has never recovered, and in fact taken her own life, the only way she can begin to remember without being entirely overwhelmed by grief, guilt and shame, is to detachedly remember through a third-person filter.
Click on the image to see a presentation with photos and music created for the meeting: