From the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go In his highly acclaimed debut, Kazuo Ishiguro tells the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. Retreating into the past, she finds herself reliving one particular hot summer night in Nagasaki, when she and her friends struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. But then as she recalls her strange friendship with Sachiko - a wealthy woman reduced to vagrancy - the memories take on a disturbing cast.
Undeniable, however, is that Ishiguro has beautiful prose. His ability to embed and imply his stories is great to read. Whether the narrator and Sachiko are one person I think is a question that the author has intentionally left unanswered. I tend to think they are, but don't think there's an absolute answer to it. Although, if Ishiguro hadn't had the intention he wouldn't have written the book the way it is.
... [Be] honest with yourself. In your heart of hearts, you must know yourself what I'm saying is true. And to be fair, you shouldn't be blamed for not realizing the true consequences of your action. Very few men could see where it was all leading at the time, and those men were put in prison for saying what they thought. But they're free now, and they'll lead us to a new dawn. (150)
I think the book is better than I realize. And the more I go over this quotation the more I think it is.
This novel is narrated by Etsuko, a Japanese woman who is living alone in Britain. Her younger daughter, Niki, comes to visit her and this seems to spur all sorts of memories for her. Through these memories, portions of Etsuko's life are slowly and incompletely revealed. We learn that Etsuko lived in Japan during WWII and obviously experienced a lot of trauma, though there are no details revealed. She was married to a man name Jiro and had his child, Keiko, while she was in Japan. At some point she left him to move to Britain with a man, taking Keiko with her and later having Niki with the British man. We also learn that Keiko committed suicide. Etsuko's British husband has died and we never find out what happened to Jiro. All of these details are revealed subtlety and out of order, so it takes a while to piece together the story. It is all interspersed with Etsuko's memories of her interactions with a woman named Sachiko and her daughter Mariko. Etsuko at that point was married to Jiro and pregnant. She is judgmental of Sachiko's parenting and her decision to leave Japan to go to America with Frank, a man who does not seem very dependable.
There is definitely an "unreliable narrator" element to this book. Etsuko is damaged, not only from the war, but also by her daughter's suicide and probably her marriages as well. It is hard to tell how much truth we can take from her memories. And then there is a twist at the end (no surprise there to readers of Ishiguro's other novels) that makes the reader wonder how much of Sachiko's actions were really Sachiko's and how many of those actions were really Etsuko's actions projected on to Sachiko. It's all rather mysterious and haunting.
What I found interesting about this book is that as I was going along reading/listening I kind of kept wondering "where in the world is this going"? It is such a simple story and doesn't really seem to have a point - just the memories of an older woman that don't really tie together. But then in the last few minutes of the book, Ishiguro throws in a new idea and all of a sudden I want to read the book again with my eye on it differently.
As with all of Ishiguro's works that I've read so far, the writing style in this novel is smooth and flows easily, although it is a bit less polished than his later books. Etsuko warns the reader early on that she is an unreliable narrator, but exactly how true that is does not become entirely clear until very near the end of the novel. Ishiguro's mastery in this book is to write something that is evocative and interesting but does not seem to be particularly significant all along and then throw in a monkey wrench by way of a few lines that cause the reader to re-evaluate not only the scene that just occurred but also everything else they took for granted in the story. Indeed, this is a book that will leave the reader mulling over it long after its ending, with various interpretations being put forth by each reader.
In addition to its mysterious and not fully explained content, this book explores many themes. Most notable is of course the reliability of memory, but there are also topics concerning motherhood and the parent/child relationship, generational relationships in general, the contrast - and sometimes conflict - between modernity and tradition, cultural differences and appropriation, and the effects of war on the human psyche. This little book packs a solid amount of food for thought. While some readers may find the lack of a conclusive ending off-putting, I think it's well worth the read and recommend it for when you're in the mood for something thought-provoking.
[[Ishiguro]] is one of my favorite authors and this book is like his others in that it's not as straight forward a story as you might think, starting out. Etsuko, a Japanese woman remembers a summer in Nagasaki when she was pregnant, and had met Sachiko. The story flips between present day and that summer, and although there seems to be a progression in events, Ishiguro keeps his surprise till the very end and leaves you with a few possible conclusions. He certainly had me mulling over a few scenarios when I had finished reading it.
Etsuko, a Japanese born woman living in Japan, is dealing with the recent suicide of her elder daughter. With her younger daughter staying with her, she reflects on her own past in Japan, when she was a young wife, pregnant with her first child. Living in Nagasaki, the city so recently devastated by the American bomb, she becomes friends with Sachiko, a woman who-along with a young daughter- lives in a shack that has no electricity or water, spends her days working in a noodle shop and her evenings with an American service man who she expects to take her to live with him when he is shipped back home. This life is very different from Etsuko’s- she is married to a man who expects instant obedience from her and spends her days cleaning and cooking. Sachiko’s daughter, Mariko, is a fey child who does not go to school and spends her time by herself or with a batch of kittens, sometimes speaking of a woman that no one else sees. And there is a child murderer on the loose....
How accurate are Etsuko’s memories? Is there more to her past than she admits in her mind? Does she have some connection with the murderer, or with Sachiko? These things are unresolved. Memory can be like that; many times one doesn’t see the past in a clear cut way. In the 24 hours since I finished reading this book, I’ve wondered over and over about these things and am no closer to the answer, but the wondering is a pleasant thing.
The novel tells the story of Etsuko, a Japanese-born transplant living in England (a none-too-subtle reference to the author's own life, perhaps?) near her younger daughter Niki. It's told mostly in flashbacks, in which Etsuko reflects on her stable but unexciting marriage to Jiro and the increasingly bizarre relationship she has with a neighbor, Sachiko, and her daughter Mariko -- all of which is tinged by the present knowledge that Etsuko's eldest daughter, Keiko, committed suicide just prior to the start of the tale.
There is little more that can be revealed of the plot without threatening the pacing and development of which Ishiguro already shows great command. Unlike some of his other novels, where the unassuming gathers increasing significance, Sachiko's bizarre behavior, unnerving condescension, and awkward devil-may-care attitude stirs the reader's interest from the start, causing us to care greatly about this surprisingly flat character.
Etsuko herself is an unusual character because her change seems to occur between the story's two main timelines: her friendship with Sachiko while pregnant with Keiko, and a visit from Niki after Keiko's suicide in the present. Thus we see a two-faced woman but never the events that prompt her to change. As the novel carries along, however, that change becomes increasingly clear as details come to light that force us to question a number of assumptions and events in the text. So while the novel invites a quick reading, and is short enough to be read in one sitting, there are much more levels than reveal themselves on the surface.
In the end, the novel turns out to be very different than what we expect from the start -- one particular passage near the end turns almost the entire work on its heel -- and succeeds in building a mystery that fascinates but does not madden the reader. A work that is less obviously tied to Japan than its follow-up, An Artist of the Floating World, A Pale View of Hills is a novel that will get under your skin quickly and completely.
And the story in the past is full of holes. At first this annoyed me but, the more I thought about it, the more I realised how true this is to the story as the woman would have thought about it. Not only are our memories full of holes, but there are also plenty of things we simply don't want to think about, either because they are too painful (the suicide) or simply because they are obvious to us as we know them already. This is why a lot of things a reader would want to know, for example how the woman ended up leaving her first husband and going from Japan to England, are left virtually untouched. We might want to know, but it's not where this woman's mind is going. She's interested in a seemingly unimportant episode, a fairly brief friendship a long time ago with a woman called Sachiko and her small daughter Mariko. Gradually we realise that the woman is thinking about them as a way of drawing parallels with her own life and understanding her relationship with her daughter. Sachiko just wants to escape from Nagasaki, where the Bomb dropped, where so many died and the survivors are living in tough conditions, and she'll do anything to get out, even though she knows she is being a bad mother to Mariko.
The guilt comes across gradually, indirectly, but this is all we can expect from an emotionally repressed character, one who states at the outset: "I have no great wish to dwell on Keiko [her daughter] now, it brings me little comfort."
The writing style is beautiful, restrained, and Ishiguro is particularly good at making things clear without making them obvious, for example a character is saying they are happy, they couldn't be happier, and yet although there are no overt sings of it, we know they are lying. There are also ideas here that will be developed at greater length in his later novels, for example the old man who is rejected by the younger generation, which became the theme of "An Artist of the Floating World".
I've read all but one of Ishiguro's novels now and enjoyed all of them. His writing is a little bit similar in all of them, though - even though they are first-person narrators in wildly different settings, they all sound like the same person somehow. But the stories are compelling enough, and the writing beautiful enough, for this not to matter really.
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?
It paints a portrait of Etsuko, the narrator, a Japanese woman now living in England, reflecting during the visit of one of her daughters on the suicide of her other daughter, and a friendship made with a woman named Sachiko during her time living in Nagasaki.
Some reviewers draw attention to issues such as memory and 'truth', and the 'reliability' or otherwise of Etsuko as a narrator, and these themes are definitely raised by this novel, which allows the reader to fill in many of the gaps in the narrative as s/he chooses.
A middle-aged Japanese woman living in England receives a visit from her semi-estranged younger daughter, following the suicide of her older daughter.
As the narrator, the middle-aged woman, Etsuko, tells the story of another woman, Sachiko, claiming: “I never knew Sachiko well. In fact, our friendship was no more than a matter of some several weeks one summer many years ago.” It doesn’t take long to realize that Etsuko seems remarkably emotionally involved – if that was the case, and if she’s telling the truth. As the novel progresses, more and more parallels between the painful lives of Etsuko and Sachiko become evident.
It’s left up to the reader to decide what might be factually true – but the book is really about emotional truth – a musing on the idea that, as Ishiguro describes it: “the English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary.” The novel’s descriptions of the trauma following the years of WWII, and the details of how the social upheaval of that time affected the lives of ordinary people, work toward giving part of an explanation.
A sad, but beautiful and illuminating book.