39 pages 1 hour read

Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1982

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Summary and Study Guide


A Pale View of Hills (1982) is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro immigrated with his family to the United Kingdom when he was five years old. Despite his family’s Japanese origins, the author frequently states in interviews that his experience with Japanese culture is very limited, as he spent all his adult life in England. Simultaneously, however, growing up in a Japanese family developed in Ishiguro a different perspective compared to his English peers. The result is a unique writing style that relies on conspiratorial narrators and character dialogue to speak to the human condition and memory.

In 1980, Ishiguro received an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He has published eight novels, including The Remains of the Day (1989), awarded the Booker Prize, and Never Let Me Go (2005), named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. Ishiguro received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017 and was knighted for services in literature in 2018.

Plot Summary

A Pale View of Hills follows two specific temporal points, one in modern-day (1980s) England and one in post-World War II Japan, connected through the first-person recollections of the narrator, Etsuko. The story begins with a visit from Etsuko’s younger daughter, Niki, at their country house in England. Etsuko is Japanese, and she met and married her English husband when her older daughter, Keiko, was seven years old. They moved to England, but Keiko was unable to adapt to the new place and became a recluse. She eventually moved away to Manchester and committed suicide shortly before the start of the narrative.

During Niki’s visit, Etsuko reminisces about the summer when she was pregnant with Keiko. The narration shifts to her past, when she and her first husband, Jiro, live in a new housing development on the outskirts of Nagasaki. She befriends an older woman, Sachiko, who lives alone with her daughter, Mariko, in an old house by the nearby river. Sachiko neglects her child, so Etsuko attempts to befriend the girl and supervise her. Mariko, however, is not a very friendly or lovable child, and the two are unable to connect.

Through Etsuko’s conversations with Sachiko, it becomes clear that the older woman is from an educated and affluent family; her father traveled often and had business connections with America. But after the death of her husband, and presumably her family, she lost her social standing. She desires more out of life and plans to immigrate to America with the help of her American lover, Frank.

In the meantime, Etsuko’s father-in-law, Ogata-san, arrives for a visit. He is widowed, but rather than live with his son’s family, as is traditional, he lives in a different town. Etsuko is very fond of Ogata-san because he is also her foster father. After she lost her entire family and love interest, presumably during the bombing of Nagasaki, her school director, Ogata-san, took her in. She then met and eventually married his son, Jiro.

The reason for Ogata-san’s visit is an article he recently read in an education journal in which his one-time friend, Shigeo Matsuda, argues that the old education system and those who support it should be removed and a new one instituted. Ogata-san dedicated his life to educating the young, so he is deeply hurt by such a statement from someone he helped in the past. He wants Jiro to write to Shigeo and demand a retraction or an explanation. Jiro, however, seems to agree, at least to an extent, with Shigeo. Finally, during an outing to Nagasaki with Etsuko, Ogata-san runs into Shigeo and confronts him. Shigeo explains that he respects the former director, but he believes the older generation of teachers is misguided. He blames the traditional education system for Japan’s involvement in WWII and the subsequent atomic bombings. After the confrontation with Shigeo, Ogata-san prepares to return to his town.

At this time, Sachiko’s American lover abandons her, and she begins working at a noodle shop owned by one of Etsuko’s acquaintances. Sachiko believes such work to be beneath her, but she is willing to do it in order to have time to search for Frank. She eventually finds him, and they make up. Frank promises they will soon move to Kobe, where he will get a spot on a ship bound for America and will then send money back for Sachiko and Mariko’s tickets. While packing, Sachiko tells her daughter they cannot bring the newborn kittens for which Mariko has been caring. Sachiko takes the box with the animals, goes to the river, and drowns them.

Etsuko’s recollection of this summer in Japan forms much of the narrative, but it is interspersed with the conversations she has with Niki during her visit in the present day. They go to the village to have tea, and Etsuko notices a girl on a swing. She later dreams about the child but realizes she is dreaming about a different girl, presumably Mariko. When they meet a neighbor during one of their outings, Etsuko is unable to tell her about Keiko’s death and simply implies she is still away in Manchester.

Niki receives a call from London and decides to return. Etsuko mentions selling the house, but her daughter seems opposed to the idea. She also requests a picture from Japan to pass along to a friend who is interested in Etsuko’s life story. Etsuko finds an old calendar with a view of the Nagasaki harbor, which brings back happy memories of an outing with Keiko when they rode on the harbor’s cable car.

Niki departs, and Etsuko stands at the garden gate and looks after her. Etsuko shifts the narration to a final recollection: While searching for Mariko one night, Etsuko crosses the bridge over the river. She finds the child there, and they have an argument. Etsuko talks to Mariko about the girl’s upcoming immigration to America, but her pronouns shift from “you” to “we,” and promises the girl that if they do not like it in the new place, they will return. The child seems afraid and runs away from Etsuko, who observes Mariko running toward the old house.

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