Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel, A Pale View of Hills, is the author’s first foray into the world of the unreliable narrator. Our protagonist here is Etsuko, an older woman who emigrated from Japan to England some years ago. Etsuko is mother to two daughters – Keiko, who was born in Japan during Etsuko’s first marriage, and Niki, born in England to Etsuko and her second husband. Ever unhappy in England, Keiko became a shut-in and eventually took her own life. In the aftermath of Keiko’s suicide, Etsuko thinks back to her first marriage, and her life in post-war Nagasaki.
Etsuko’s reminiscences focus on a past friendship with a neighbour, Sachiko. While Etsuko was happily married and expecting her first child, Sachiko was a single mother to a nine-year-old daughter, Mariko. Etsuko’s life was very much that of the traditional Japanese wife, while Sachiko was much more of a free spirit, living in a derelict old house and often abandoning her daughter for hours at time while she went on dates with her American boyfriend.
It all seems pretty straightforward in the first instance, but by the time we get to the end of the novel, we realise that perhaps all was not as it was related to us. The very title of the novel, “A Pale View of Hills”, although nominally describing the distant mountain view Etsuko glimpsed in her Japanese apartment, also hints at something more – a narrative viewed distantly and imperfectly.
In order to fully explore this, we will start at the end of the novel, and then work backwards. From now on, there will be spoilers!
Who is Etsuko?
In the present time, Etsuko is a Japanese ex-pat living in England. She had one daughter, Keiko, with her first husband in Japan, and another, Niki, with her British husband. Keiko never really adjusted to life in England, and eventually committed suicide.
At the time she met Sachiko, Etsuko was still living in Nagasaki, shortly after the devastation of World War II. She was married to her first husband, Jiro, and they were expecting their first child together. Jiro is a very traditional Japanese man, and while Etsuko claims to be happy, there’s a sense that the strict delineation of gender roles in her marriage has stifled her independence and creativity.
Who is Sachiko?
Sachiko is a single mother who has just moved across town into a dilapidated old shack near Etsuko’s apartment. As a parent, Sachiko seems distant and unreliable, preferring to spend time with her American boyfriend while her daughter is left to her own devices. Despite her circumstances, Sachiko is proud and headstrong, and always tries to present herself in the best light.
What really happened in the past?
Taken at surface value, Etsuko’s story is just musings on her past encounter with Sachiko. But if we look more closely, we can start to discern that all is not as it seems.
Towards the end of the novel, Sachiko’s daughter Mariko runs away after learning that she and Sachiko will be moving to America with Sachiko’s boyfriend. Etsuko tracks her down and tries to convince the little girl that everything will be fine, and that if it isn’t, “we can always come back”. The shift of pronoun here hints that all is not as it seems – that it is not some other woman and her child who are moving abroad, but rather that Etsuko is recalling an exchange with her own daughter.
Armed with this realisation, we can look at other points in the text where Etsuko’s narration seems off, odd or unreliable in some way:
- Early in the novel, Etsuko recalls how her neighbours regarded Sachiko as standoffish and unfriendly. She then slips into the first person, following up with “it was never my intention to appear unfriendly”. On first reading, it seems a lot odd, but one might put it down to Etsuko merely noting something she had in common with Sachiko.
- When Etsuko’s father-in-law reminisces about the time she first came to live with his family, he mentions both her habit of playing the violin at all hours, and her insistence that she would only live in a house with azaleas out front. Etsuko has no recollection of either of these things, and while can put this down to PTSD after the bombing of Nagasaki, it speaks to a greater unreliability in her narration.
- Twice when searching for Mariko, Etsuko gets her foot caught in a rope. The fact that this happens twice, and that Mariko seems so scared of the rope, seem to speak to a greater symbolism beyond a purely literal retelling of events.
- In a later chapter, Etsuko accompanies Sachiko and Mariko on a trip to the nearby mountains. Shortly after that, we hear present day Etsuko telling Niki how she once took Keiko to those mountains. Now, of course, there’s nothing to stop Etsuko making the same trip on two different occasions, but it could also be the case that it was really Etsuko and Keiko who made the trip described in the novel.
Etsuko is Etsuko
The most prosaic explanation, in which we ignore all hints to the contrary and assume that Etsuko’s story is largely, if not entirely, accurate. Sachiko was indeed a person that Etsuko met in the past, with her own distinct history and life story. It seems likely that meeting Sachiko showed Etsuko that there were possibilities beyond being a traditional Japanese wife, and that this inspired her to leave Jiro and move to England with her second husband.
Etsuko is Sachiko
In this interpretation, when present day Etsuko talks about her “friend” Sachiko, she actually means her past self. Since she knows that her behaviour – in particular her parenting – as “Sachiko” was less than stellar, it is less painful for her to cast it as the behaviour of someone she knew, rather than admit that she wasn’t a very good mother to Keiko.
Sachiko was set to marry an American and eventually move to the USA, whereas present Etsuko married a Brit and moved to England. Is this just yet another unreliability in narration? Perhaps not. For all that they play very minor roles in the story, Sachiko’s boyfriend Frank seems to have a very different personality to Etsuko’s British husband. If Frank was indeed a real person, then it’s likely that his tumultuous on-off relationship with Sachiko ended with them parting ways. Somewhere along the way, however, running after Frank led to Sachiko/Etsuko meeting and marrying a British man instead.
Who is past Etsuko in this interpretation? She could either have been a real person who Sachiko/Etsuko befriended in the past, or she could just represent the way Sachiko wishes she had acted in the past. In reality, she did indeed let Mariko/Keiko run wild and not care much about her, something she now regrets. Therefore, in the retelling of the past, Etsuko imagines a fake persona who did care about Mariko/Keiko and her wellbeing.
Etsuko is both Etsuko and Sachiko
It may well be the case that both stories are true – it’s just that they occurred at different times. Although she has conflated the two narratives, they are actually about different periods in Etsuko’s life. By thinking of them as simultaneous events, both Etsuko and the reader can examine the differences between those two phases of her life, and perhaps reflect on how they led to both her current life and the death of her eldest daughter.
One question raised by this argument is that of Sachiko’s past. From her interactions with Etsuko, we learn that she moved out of her uncle’s house because of a disagreement with her cousin. We never learn what the exact disagreement is, but we do later hear an apology from the cousin, who says she never meant to insult Sachiko. This seems at odds with Etsuko, who has lost her family and only has her husband and in-laws.
However, given that “Mariko” may be a stand-in for Keiko, it is of course possible that Sachiko’s uncle and cousin are merely stand-ins for Etsuko’s father-in-law and sister-in-law. If Etsuko moved back in with them after her marriage to Jiro broke down, it is easy to see what an awkward situation that might be, and how it might cause Etsuko/Sachiko to prefer living in a dilapidated old shack.
The ambiguity of A Pale View of Hills has led to much discussion and analysis even before I first set eyes on it, let alone thought about writing this blog. For those who like certainty in what they read, the ambiguity in the novel’s events may be a little frustrating. But there is no doubt that it also fascinating, and it is a craft that Ishiguro only continued to hone in his later works.