Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 and is a writer of novels and short stories. She blogs at Every Day I Lie A Little. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy was selected by Waterstone's as one of 12 New Voices to watch. Based in Preston, Lancashire, Jenn divides her time between freelance literature development, running a prison library and writing her second novel. Here she writes about Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills.
Jenn Ashworth on A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
When I read A Pale View of Hills first I was in hospital with a heap of novels brought by a friend. He had some sense of humour - I remember The Bell Jar and Beautiful Losers were among them. When you're ill like that, people don't send you flowers, they bring you things to read. Maybe I was recovering at home - alternating reading pages of this strange new book with looking out of the window at the broken fence and the black wheelie bin with the lid ripped off. I finished it in a day, and then I read it again. Carried on reading it, once or twice a year, for the next 10 years.
That first time though. It shocked me, finally, into silence.
After a long time, I went, tentatively questioning to my teacher. I wanted to know what was outside the story. I wanted to know the rest of it. Because there was a rest of it, I was certain of that.
'Did she really do it?'
I was sixteen, it was the first conversation I'd ever had with an adult about a book. His shirt was so cheap it was transparent. I could see his nipples through it. He'd be about the same age I am now, and probably terrified of this kohl-eyed girl who was away too much and sometimes handed in poems as well as essays.
He didn't know how to answer me.
There are two stories. At least. The one about Etsuko in the bombed-out ruins of Nagasaki, and the one about the older Etsuko, haunted by a daughter who was silent and unhappy and who eventually hanged herself. They tuck inside each other: the memory - and the circumstance in which she relates it. I can't think of any other way to write now.
It's a frame story. A ghost story. A meditation on war and loss and regret. It's about waking up in the night and wondering - did I do the right thing? It's about knowing that you probably didn't, and working out how to live with that.
Can it be lived with? Not unless it can be spoken, and nothing in this book is spoken aloud. Etsuko is reticent about her past. She talks about a friend of hers - Satchiko - who might be a substitute. A kind of body-double actor for her own wrongdoings. Or the whole thing might be a fantasy - Satchiko's sad, hopeless relationship with Frank the American bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of Madam Butterfly. Nikki - the British-born and raised second daughter, is louder, more open - but even she tiptoes around her mother's grief and guilt.
Is it guilt? We never find out. Etsuko won't speak about herself - only Satchiko. Sometimes she gets her pronouns mixed up. Or she might not. You want to pick up Ishiguro's characters and shake them. Shake the stories out of them. There's a lot about manners, politeness, propriety. They're so important. They're one of the ways, I think, these characters protect themselves from those long pale shadows in their past. There are enigmas that I have not been able to unravel after a decade of scrutinizing this story.
I have never, not before nor since, been so disturbed by a book. There are flaws to the novel but this isn't a review, it is encomium. It's a huge, restrained, spaciously slim wonder. I demand that everyone who reads this goes and buys a copy.
Did I say, I was writing a novel then too? On a manual type-writer. The word hyperbole was invented for it. I wasn't special. I was sixteen. Underweight. I smoked and talked and wrote and thought too much. I typed my way through a year, two years, and I wanted to include everything. This book was going to be epic.
I've written in my copy of A Pale View of Hills, and there wasn't even an exam on it. I've written my name in it. This book is mine - published the same year I was born. A Pale View of Hills. How is it that there can be so much between my finger and thumb - hardly half an inch apart, like this?
I didn't know how much you could achieve and what you could do by saying less. I didn't understand, until I'd witnessed my own participation with this short, uneasy novel (a first novel - did that mean I could write something like that too?), that half the work belongs to the reader. There's a connection - a kind of telepathy carried along the words, but for it to work the reader needs her own space. Between the lines. That's where it happens. I had my own sickly impulse for deleting and editing and silencing. It was there, but I hadn't thought to apply it to a story. Not yet.
It is old hat, what I'm saying now. It maybe doesn't feel magical any more. I read it, and realized finding what to say is the same as finding out who you are. And sometimes that means cutting things out, leaving it to the reader, to the imagination, to someone else. There are good ways to do that deleting, that silencing. I set about it.