I just finished A Pale View of Hills in pretty much two sittings. I must say, I never expected Ishiguro to be so.... sinister.
I have a lot to say about this book (with lots of spoilers), so bear with me.
The whole book has an incredibly eerie, haunted quality to it that put me on edge from the outset. You never feel comfortable or settled into this work. Knowing Ishiguro, I knew immediately that his narrator could not be trusted, especially given her reserved and often sparse description of events and memories. What interests me about Ishiguro as a writer is how masterful he is at maintaining a pitch perfect control over his narrators. Everything he does is deliberate. Throughout, Etsuko recalls events with a calm, restrained yet matter-of-fact demeanor. She does not reveal her emotions or dwell on them in any way. And yet, on the other hand, we get hints of her psychological distress when Ishiguro has her repeat, several times in her narrative, "There is nothing to be gained in going over such matters again." Like a mantra. A defense mechanism of denial. His deliberateness is masterful, and yet if you've read him before, you know nothing is at it appears.
I began to suspect that Sachiko was not who we are led to believe she is somewhere in the middle of the book. Etsuko is far too restrained in her depiction of them, and then given to random bursts of annoyance at Mariko for me to take everything at face value. Add on the many parallels in Sachiko and Etsuko's stories, and it clearly gave way to suspicion early on. By the time we reach the end, and Ishiguro is referring to Mariko as "the child" and Etsuko is saying "We can come back", I was not entirely surprised.
Because I know Moonie inquired once (and I just read her post on The Book Book) , my theories are similar to hers. I believe that Sachiko and Etsuko, at least in this narrative, are the same person. Perhaps Sachiko as a person with her daughter existed at one time during Etsuko's early life, but I would believe that they existed in a very different fashion. It seems to me that Etsuko has projected her actions and life onto Sachiko so that she can view the actions from a third party POV, and cope with them in this way, while all the while denying to herself that there is no reason to go over her own mistakes over and over again. We get hints that Sachiko is prone to the same mantra repetition in the fact that she'll keep saying outloud, "I'm not ashamed or embarassed by anything I've done." Another self-denial. Add in the one where she keeps repeating that she would do what's best for her daughter, and we have truly hit the nail on the head with Etsuko/Sachiko's penchant for denial in all aspects.
A few things I am still pondering - for instance the relationship with the father-in-law and her first husband are dealt with in detail, and serve to show the unending politeness and ritual that existed in her old life. I was interested the degree to which conflicts are dealt with in a sort of passive-aggressive way, with tensions simmering below a gracious veneer. Etsuko seems more comfortable with her father-in-law as she jokes with him, and yet I sense there is something more going on, hints of a life that came previously. As if she owed him to marry his son because he took her in. The relationship between the father-in-law and husband and the third-party Shigeo character is interesting too. I'm trying to grasp the significance of it, beyond just the demonstration of old vs. new and the ramifications of a war or the familial tension. I'm guessing there's something even deeper and more significant at hand here, but I'm not 100% sure of it.
The menace and sinister quality of this book actually took me aback. The scenes that are dropped without fanfare are alarming. Beyond the obvious suicide, you have the scene where Mariko is found hurt and bleeding (I thought she'd been raped at first, and I'm still not entirely convinced she wasn't - perhaps by the dirty "Frank" that she so vehemently despises), the child murders, the woman drowning her baby and then killing herself, the drowning of the kittens. All highly disturbing images that are not given additional inspection but merely described and left as is. Then there are the more subtle moments, like Mariko playing with spiders that she tries to eat, her asking Etsuko twice about things she is holding (a rope the first time, what was it the second time??), the tubby boy being kicked off the tree, Mariko whispering to her kittens in an unnerving voice. The entire thing is frightening and holds an undercurrent of something incredibly dark. I'm not even sure what to make of this - is it a manifestation of Etsuko's guilt at her hand at her daughter's eventual suicide that thus makes her memories of her past so dark? Unlike other posters, I never believed Etsuko actually killed anyone with her own hand, but it seems that she feels subconsciously that she is as good as having done so.
The other thing I wonder is if perhaps these memories of her chasing after Mariko are in fact the recurring dreams she is having, and not memories at all. Thus the strangeness of the scenes, and the dark menacing object, rope, whatever it is, that Mariko asks after. I don't even think these events are necessarily a fabrication of memory anymore, but perhaps are a remembrance of the dreams she is having. I didn't catch the reference to the fact that the girl in her dream wasn't on a swing but on something else until I read Moonie's comment on Book Book, but that seems to further convince me of this theory.
Also, I've thought about it, and I wonder if "the other woman" from across the river that Mariko refers to is in fact an Etsuko-like neighbor in Etsuko's story. As in, if Etsuko was Sachiko, then if she had a concerned neighbor who kept dropping by to take care of Mariko and had offered to take kittens or watch after her. Ie, role reversal, and Etsuko, due to her guilty mind, has decided to take on the role of that neighbor in her memory instead.
Random other things - who was that American woman? What were they talking about? Who was that other lady? Does she serve any purpose aside from showing Sachiko/Etsuko's fascination with foreign life?
And... what did Sachiko fight with her cousin about?? Was it more about the old?
Interestingly enough, while Etsuko maintains that Mrs. Fujiwara is happy and doing something with her life, Sachiko sees her as living below her means and being tied down after a leisurely life, with nothing to live for. And yet, while her life would be more comfortable if she lived with her uncle, I think she sees that living there would also doom her to a life that isn't what she desired, and she doesn't want to end up like Mrs. Fujiwara, trapped in a way.
Okay, chatting with Moonie now, and she believes Etsuko meant to kill Mariko/Keiko in the end with the rope to make it easier for her. I didn't get that when I read it, but now I'm wondering if thta might make sense... The menace is there, but I'm just not sure how literal it is. Moonie also believes that Etsuko might be the serial killer of the child murders. I'm not sure there's enough psychological craziness there for me to believe that, but it's an interesting concept, especially since we never find out more about the child murders.
I'm sure I'm leaving out many more crucial things I want to discuss, but this book is so rich and mysterious that I don't think I can get it all. All I can say is that Ishiguro is a freaking master at these psychological first-person narrator novels, and he does it in the perfect understated way. In this case, it serves to make me feel truly unsettled and unnerved. This book is deceivingly quiet, and yet so much lurks beneath the surface that I'm getting veritable shivers (and there is blinding San Diego sunlight streaming into my apartment as I type too) just thinking about it.
I think I need to read this book again to truly try to take this apart.
But really freaking awesome, and I highly recommend any Ishiguro fan to pick it up.