Kazuo Ishiguro's superlative skill lies in his ability to expose the introspection of his characters on the page. A Pale View of Hills is essentially Etsuko's somewhat jumbled reminiscences of her life in Japan, surrounded by some musings set in the present day following the suicide of her older daughter Keiko. Etsuko's memories of Sachiko offer a contrast to the younger Etsuko's insistence that she is happy as she is, where she is, a fact belied by the contemporary Etsuko's presence in England, with a half-English daughter, Niki, who has come to visit her for a few days. In many ways it isn't what Ishiguro reveals about Etsuko that matters so much as what he doesn't reveal.
As the narrative takes shape around the two time periods, it becomes clear that there are gaps and inconsistencies. Although it would be possible to read this as a straightforward tale of a homesick old woman thinking about one summer long ago in Japan, such a reading ignores the deeper subtext created by Etsuko's tale. Ishiguro is very selective about which scenes, which developments, he shows us. At home, Etsuko is a model wife: respectful and obedient to husband and father-in-law, dutiful and happy about her impending motherhood. Yet in her less guarded moments with Sachiko she betrays more personality. She clashes with Sachiko, who is defensive about her poor parenting. But are Sachiko and Mariko real? Or are they Etsuko attempting to explore her guilt over Keiko's unhappiness and suicide?
A Pale View of Hills thus has all the qualities of an Ishiguro novel. It has a narrator looking back at their life, wallowing in regrets, shading the corners of the tale with their own pattern of biases. Yet it lacks the polish of Ishiguro's later works. I found the characters, even Etsuko, very underwhelming and flat. The dialogue in particular feels stunted. I like imagining scores to a novel as I read them, but in my head while reading this there was only silence. The characters sound more like robots following a series of predetermined lines instead of living, breathing people reacting to each other. I'd like to think that this is intentional on Ishiguro's part, that it underscores the unreliability of Etsuko's narrative, but even the parts set in the present are like this. Niki and Etsuko talk like two people who have just met instead of a mother and daughter with years of arguments and antics shared between them.
Still, though the silence is rough around its edges, it is a palpable and believable manifestation of the hole left in Etsuko's life by Keiko's death. Ishiguro doesn't explain what happened to her husband (either of them), why she is alone, why she moves to England in the first place. Instead of a panoply of answers he offers merely a narrow window into a small part of Etsuko's life; it's up to us whether we declare ourselves satisfied with it.
For my part, A Pale View of Hills is diverting but not as memorable as the other Ishiguro novels I've read. It was a pleasant weekend read. And it has depths that deserve examination--but unlike some of his other works, they don't demand it. This is not as powerful a story as Ishiguro goes on to produce, and coming to it now, this leaves me disappointed. It's still a story that I can recommend, but it's not something I can hold up as Ishiguro's finest.