Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What the hell is up with A Pale View of Hills

OK, I finished A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro last night, and am completely disturbed. I need to talk about it. If you haven't read this book and plan to in the future, click away, click away. This post will be full of spoilers. If you have read the book, please chip in.

I started to provide a plot summary, but stopped because I'm really directing this at people who have read the novel. You can find one here. What I want to talk about are the two main interpretations of the novel. There are more than two ways to read A Pale View of Hills, but these are the two basic branches, I think, with variations.

Interpretation 1: Etsuko is Sachiko; Keiko is Mariko. Etsuko is unwilling to accept her past behavior (Sachiko is a terrible mother and frequently leaves her daughter alone for hours at a time, allowing her to wander around by herself even though there has been a spate of child murders in the area; she also hasn't enrolled Mariko in school, and plans to take the child against her will to America with her boyfriend, whom Mariko hates), so she invents a "friend" to project her disapproval onto. This explains the parallels in Etsuko's and Sachiko's lives: Both leave Japan with a daughter for an English-speaking country (though in fact it's unclear in the novel whether Etsuko ever makes it to America). Mariko is a lonely, unhappy child who doesn't want to leave Japan; Keiko is described similarly and never adjusts to life in England, hence her withdrawal and eventual suicide. As far as I can tell, this is the more common interpretation of the novel.

Interpretation 2: Etsuko is the child murderer. She murders Mariko, among other children, but has blocked it out. Her method is hanging, which calls into question whether Keiko in fact committed suicide or was murdered.

I favor the second interpretation, for these reasons: Etsuko repeatedly expresses concern for Mariko's whereabouts and well-being. The child is wont to run off, and Etsuko goes out looking for her on several occassions, though Sachiko always says there is nothing to worry about. On one occasion, she has gotten a rope caught around her ankle when she finds Mariko, and Mariko appears afraid of her. Later, in the crucial scene where Etsuko finds her by the river and speaks to her as though she were Sachiko (saying, "If you don't like it in America, we can come back" -- leading many readers to believe that Etsuko is Sachiko), she is again suddenly holding a rope. The child asks why she is holding it, and she says again that it just got caught around her ankle, and that she's not going to hurt the child. In the memory, Mariko runs away, but in Interpretation 2, Etsuko in fact kills the child. This explains her premonition earlier that day, and her recurring dreams, in England, of a little girl "swinging" (not on a swing, but by a rope). Etsuko has merely confused Mariko with her own daughter Keiko, since she would later have a similar conversation, convincing her to move to England. The stuff about the child murders and the rope doesn't make sense if Mariko is Keiko, because Keiko doesn't die until much later.

A third interpretation, I suppose, is that Etsuko is both the child murderer and Sachiko, and that she killed her first daughter and had another while still in Japan. Or, in a fourth version, she is both the child murderer and Sachiko, but doesn't succeed in killing Mariko/Keiko, although she has killed other children in the past. Or, fifth, she is not the murderer at large, but she does have a "killer inside" and considers killing Mariko/Keiko, but does not succeed, in which case the vision of Mariko hanging is more of a wish than a memory, though in fact she does hang herself many years later.

Also entirely possible: The story is intentionally ambiguous, all interpretations being valid.

For those who have read it, what do you think?

52 comments:

  1. From Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro, Edited by Brian W. Shaffer & Cynthia F. Wong:

    "In [A Pale View of Hills], I was trying something rather odd with the narrative. The main strategy was to leave a big gap. It's about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who is exiled in Britain in middle age, and there's a certain area of her life that's very painful to her. It has something to do with her coming over to the West and the effect it has on her daughter, who subsequently commits suicide. She talks all around it, but she leaves that as a gap. Instead, she tells another story altogether, going back years and talking about somebody she once knew. So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people's stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection."

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  2. Ahhh, so that fits more, I think, with the second interpretation: that Sachiko and Mariko are real, separate people, but that she is using/manipulating their story in some way, warping it through her memory and her retelling.

    Also, 'exiled' implies she's a freaking murderer!

    Thanks, Travis!

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  3. A pleasure.

    Here's more from the interview:

    Q: There are certain things, a bit like in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, that are unresolved. For instance, in the pivotal scene on the bridge when Etsuko is talking to her friend Sachiko's daughter Mariko, she switches without warning to addressing the child as if she herself were actually the child's mother. At the most extreme, that leads the reader to ponder whether the two women were not one and the same person.

    A. What I intended was this: because it's really Etsuko talking about herself, and possibly that somebody else, Sachiko, existed or did not exist, the meanings that Etsuko imputes to the life of Sachicko are obviously the meanings that are relevant to her (Etsuko's) own life. Whatever the facts were about what happened to Sachiko and her daughter, they are of interest to Etsuko now because she can use them to talk about herself. So you have this highly Etsuko-ed version of this other person's story; and at the most intense point, I ewanted to suggest that Etsuko had dropped this cover. It just slips out; she's now talking about herself. She's no longer bothering to put it into the third person.

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  4. Yes, yes! Exactly -- in the intensity of the moment, the framing is breaking down.

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  5. I'm really going to have to read this book now.

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  6. I'm sorry you already know so much, then. When you're reading it, you have absolutely no sense that Etsuko has this evil inside, until the end.

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  7. It will be like watching The Sixth Sense the second time. I'll have fun looking for the clues.

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  8. I read a little further in that interview (in Google Books) and found it telling that he said he thought the book was flawed because it was his first, and that there were messy elements that didn't fit because he didn't think everything through. So, perhaps he didn't intend for Etsuko to look like the child murderer? But she certainly does.

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  9. I read that book so many years ago, I forget the details, but I definitely remember choosing Door #1...even though I can't defend my choice today.

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  10. Like Christen, I read the book a while back. I was definitely on the side of Interpretation 1, as well. Now I feel compelled to read it again, especially with these possibilities in mind...

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  11. Christen and Kelly (hi!!), how do you explain the business with the rope(s) and all the implications that Mariko ends up dead?

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  12. I actually picked this book up again and reread it this week (I couldn't believe how much I'd forgotten!), and I have to say I enjoyed the book a great deal more the second time around.

    I think I still lean toward interpretation 1 (otherwise, the first person dialogue with Mariko by the river makes no sense). But I think it's not impossible that interpretation 1 can mingle with 2, and that Etsuko is, in fact, the child murderer/the woman on the other side of the river (that river may not be literal, but the river of Etsuko's consciousness). The drowning of the kittens is just too close a parallel for the woman drowning the baby (and then supposedly killing herself. Maybe she simply dissociated that side of her personality).

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  13. Well, it makes sense if you take Ishiguro at his word that he wanted the Etsuko character to use the Sachiko story to tell her own. (He writes "What I intended was this: because it's really Etsuko talking about herself, and possibly that somebody else, Sachiko, existed or did not exist, the meanings that Etsuko imputes to the life of Sachicko are obviously the meanings that are relevant to her (Etsuko's) own life. Whatever the facts were about what happened to Sachiko and her daughter, they are of interest to Etsuko now because she can use them to talk about herself.") So the scene where she refers to Mariko as though she's her daughter makes sense if you look at it as the framing breaking down, that this is Etsuko's story, not Sachiko's. But I'm starting to think it is intentionally ambiguous slash open to interpretation.

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  14. Hi Elisa,

    I just finished the book today and in searching for analysis of it, stumbled into this very nice discussion. I was leaning towards Interpretation #2; I can certainly see how there is enough in there to suggest Etsuko is an actual murderer (and perhaps that's what Ishiguro means when he talks about holes - you may have already said this). To me, the suggestions that Etsuko is inadvertently dragging the rope that will hang Keiko, or Mariko, is an unconscious symbol of the blame she places on herself for her daughter's death. Or maybe to put it a bit more forcefully, her guilt is so strong that her memories are infiltrated with suggestions that she actually could be a murderer (though I don't think she is). Having written that, I think you are much better at parsing these interpretations than I am!

    - Ray

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    1. Hi Elisa and Ray,

      Am reading this discussion with interest as my book club were discussing these very points this evening. Ray, for me, you have hit the nail on the head -To me, the suggestions that Etsuko is inadvertently dragging the rope that will hang Keiko, or Mariko, is an unconscious symbol of the blame she places on herself for her daughter's death.'

      I see the rope as a symbol of Etsuko's guilt. I actually liked the character and could not see her a child murderer! But maybe I am just a coward

      Mary

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  15. Hi Ray! I like that idea: "her guilt is so strong that her memories are infiltrated with suggestions that she actually could be a murderer" ... the more I think about it, the more I think Ishiguro wasn't sure himself. Thanks for stopping by!

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  16. I just finished the book today. I guess I was going with something like Interpretation 1, like with some kind of Mulholland Drive body-switching thing. Really though the ending just left me confused. I definitely took note of the rope coming back in the climax scene, but I was just like, huh? And since I have such a terrible memory for what I read, even something I read only a week ago (I read this whole book in exactly 7 days), I'm not able to go back in my mind and put together the various plot strands to come up with any kind of interpretation. I wish I was able to do that, like you are.

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    1. I need to read it again someday and see what I think, knowing what I know now, etc. Though I think the ambiguities are essentially unresolvable.

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  17. Yeah. I was really liking the book a lot up to the end. I thought it was very suspenseful. But the thing about suspense is you need a satisfying payoff (I do anyway). It almost gets there, but falls just short.

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    1. I agree, I came out of this book just minutes ago feeling unsatisfied by the lack of a clear conclusion (or at least enough evidence to choose or make one for myself). I actually wondered if there was a sequel (I didn't know anything about this book previously as it was a gift).

      Personally, unless she has dramatically changed the story in her mind, which I think would be unlikely, I think Sachiko was a different person to Etsuko. I get the impression that Mariko never really had a father while Keiko was noted as having loved hers.

      The more I think about the ages of the children, though, the more I think it's possible that Etsuko left her first husband and remained in Japan for some time before going to England. It would also make sense if Niki's father was 'Frank', as they've obviously split up and the man was constantly in and out of Sachiko's life.

      I thought maybe that the change of view in the scene on the bridge might have indicated that Etsuko was already thinking of leaving. However, she obviously did not do so as Keiko knew her father for several years.

      Overall, this book has just left me thoroughly confused.

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    2. I had a slightly different interpretation.... I was thinking that maybe Etsuko kidnapped/adopted/rescued Mariko from Sachiko, and renamed her Keiko. That could explain why she is talking to Mariko at the end about "we can always come back". Also, the age difference between Mariko and Etsuko's pregnancy seems to match Keiko and Nikki.

      I think it's clear that Mariko and Keiko have a lot in common... both are very emotionally distant, independent, loners, traumatized by life and unable to deal with others very well. I just didn't see that Etsuko and Sachiko had enough in common that they could be the same person. I feel that if Etsuko is really the same person as Sachiko, looking back at how she used to be a bad mother to Mariko, we would have a hint of some major event that triggered a change and made her a better mother, and I didn't catch anything like that.

      Etsuko was always the one going out looking for Mariko-- she was always the one worried about her, always the one out trying to find her. She establishes that she is not a natural mother (continued concerns about her own ability to be a good mother in the future once her baby arrives), but she is clearly better than Sachiko. Ishiguro established quite well that Sachiko had a pattern of running off and doing her own thing, not caring what Mariko does. I imagined that maybe the night that Sachiko was packing up to move to the US and Etsuko was out chasing the traumatized Mariko, perhaps Sachiko just simply left before they got back to the cottage. Or maybe she left in the morning and left Mariko behind. Or maybe Etsuko was finally that mysterious woman who convinced Mariko "come over to my house", and when Sachiko went to leave in the morning, Mariko was not at the cottage, and so Sachiko simply left without her. Somehow, I felt that Etsuko became Mariko's mother.

      Also, on that last night when she is walking with her lantern, she has to continually stop to let trapped creatures out of the lantern. Before that, she had watched the kittens drown but had not helped them. I think she maybe saw that Sachiko was eventually going to drown Mariko (literally or figuratively), so Etsuko finally decided to take action so that she could free Mariko.

      I definitely think there is something odd about all the girls hanging, and the rope repeatedly caught on Etsuko's sandal. At one point Etsuko says "Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily colored by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here." I thought that maybe Etsuko feels very guilty for her role in having stolen Mariko/Keiko from her mother, especially since Keiko ended up hanging herself, so all of her memories of the past are clouded by this image of the rope that Keiko used to hang herself. Etsuko now can't see beyond how things ended. (She did comment on having to come to peace with the image of her daughter hanging there for many days, and clearly it is a difficult image for her.) I think Etsuko has shut her emotions off from the world (and the contrast is that with Ogata-san, she was much warmer), but I don't think it's to the extent that she is covering up a past as a murderer. She just can't get past the fact that she tried to rescue Mariko/Keiko, and in the end the girl hanged herself.

      I was really hoping we would learn what happened between Etsuko and Jiro... I thought that was going to clear things up for me.

      I would be very interested to hear what others think about this interpretation!

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    3. Thanks for your comment, Karen! It's a really interesting theory and unreliable memory certainly plays a role in this book -- we also don't know how much of the story is willfully inaccurate (meaning, Etsuko is intentionally not a reliable narrator). At this point, I am strongly considering reading the book again, because I've forgotten a lot of the small details by now, and I so enjoyed the suspense and mystery. I wonder if it will come together the second time around.

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    4. Karen's interpretation also neatly explains why Etsuko addresses Mariko as if she were her mother. And the presence of the rope is a symbol of the unintentional future risk of death (by self-inflicted hanging) implicit in becoming Etsuko's daughter. Full marks, Karen!

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    5. I agree with Karen. It was so weird reading the book, being completely caught up in the story of Sachiko and Mariko, to suddenly have the book end, having left Etsuko on the bridge after that traumatic incident with the kittens. I couldn't believe it was the end. And I had noticed how Etsuko suddenly switched to the first person plural about Mariko's going to America. "If you don't like it, we can leave." What is going on? I went back and reread it a couple of times and decided there must be a clue to the resolution. I finally came to the same conclusion as Karen. My idea is that Sachiko and her daughter go to Kobe to wait for Frank, who obviously will never send the money. Sachiko has a breakdown, or finds another man. At any rate, she can't look after her daughter any more, so she contacts Etsuko and asks her to take Mariko. Etsuko adopts Mariko and renames her Keiko. Her birth daughter is Nikki, about 7 years younger. They move to England. Mariko/Keiko is so traumatised by her terrible childhood she eventually hangs herself.
      Another clue was the postcard she gives Nikki, and says "Keiko was happy that day. We rode on the cable-cars" referring back to the day that Mariko won the major prize at the fair.
      I wonder if Ishiguro knows the answer to the puzzle he has created, or if he prefers it to remain a mystery.
      It's fantastic to find other people equally baffled and fascinated by the story, and its enigmatic, abrupt ending. I kept turning to the last page, horrified that it was indeed the end of the story.

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  18. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful takes on this novel which I have just moments ago set down after a first reading. Grand to be able to bring my enthralled bafflement to the web for some help interpreting which threads of memory and emotion might weave together out of this deceptively simple narrative. My own suspicion from early on matches KarenP's of a week ago, that Mariko became Keiko by some means; however, I certainly had no notion till the pivotal rope-repetition and pronoun-shift that there might be identity rather than identification bonding Etsuko with Sachiko. That shock sent my brain scurrying back to the woman who drowned her baby, the murders of children, and of course the killing of the kittens. Then, there was the mysterious 'ghost' woman Mariko kept seeing ... well, you all know what that's like.

    So glad someone mentioned James's The Turn of the Screw -- one of my favourite books of all time, read nearly half a century ago, one that set me on a quest to find as many novels as I could that use an 'unreliable narrator'! So. Now to ponder, and to reread, and to enjoy the likelihood of an ongoing "pale view" of these hills of Nagasaki seen from afar in the English countryside long afterward. Lovely.

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    1. I too love an unreliable narrator!

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  19. This book has left me like a draw in a game of footy! I'm not sure whether I'm glad I can interpret the story as I wish or not. I think not though (at the time of typing anyway!). I would have preferred to be able to be certain of what happened rather than not.
    There are many more interpretations above than I thought, (having finished the book like others and jumped on here to figure out whether or not I'm dumb for feeling I'm hanging from the gutter after the ladder has been removed).
    I'm going with a little from everyone. It's as clear as mud! Thanks people, it's been fascinating reading :)

    Mary

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  20. Love your topic page.

    I also interpreted the scene where Etsuko has the rope as intention to mercy kill Mariko. The rope is reminiscent of earlier scene where rope is caught on her foot while she is bumbling down to the river, which may be clue she knew where it was. Also, reader is primed to this conclusion by the infanticide, the kittens, and the suicide by hanging. Mariko also seems to read Etsuko similarly - she is afraid of Etsuko with the rope and runs away.

    Anyway, regardless of whether or not she murders Mariko at that moment (I don't see evidence that she did); Etsuko later indirectly kills her daughter, Keiko, by bringing her to a country where she fails to thrive (suicide). The triggering of her memories of Japan may be due to guilt that she did precipitate death of her own daughter by sacrificing her daughter's life and happiness for her own.
    This theme of self vs. family is echoed in all the familiar relationships in the book.

    Anyway, great read - makes for great conversation.

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  21. I love this book and love that it is imperfect and unreliable. That said, I am trying to figure it out. Mariko seems to be the same person as Keiko, without much doubt. Etsuko is full of guilt for Keiko's death by suicide and is existing drifting in and out of memory, transferring her own painful memories of Mariko/Keiko's childhood and her role as mother onto Sachiko's story (which is really partly her own story) - Sachiko seems to be a projection of Etsuko's memory - probably blending a real person into the story but I think Mariko is Keiko - the messed up psychology and trauma of Mariko's life just rings so true for a young adult suicide. It is tough to reconcile the rest of the characters and the timeline with this central tale. But I do not think Etsuko ever was a serial child murderer - hanging children lingers as a theme but it seems to be tangled up in Etsuko's guilt over Keiko's death, as opposed to her role in many murders. Whatever happened in the past, it seems certain that Etsuko had two children: one fully Japanese, the other half English - separated by a significant number of years and an even more significant difference in childhood experiences. One dead by suicide (after having lived through the trauma of post-war Japan and a disturbed mother trying to piece her lief together), the other alive. She had two husbands: one Japanese that she left behind (Keiko's father), the other British (Nikki's father). Other than that it seems Ishiguro has left it open to interpretation - and not purposefully - it really seems to be he was trying to accomplish a certain task in narration (not clear to me what) and reached a level (for him) that was good enough (it is brilliant in my estimation), the book is better than perfect, really. I am a criminal prosecutor and what has become interesting to me over the years in court is that memory and story and fact and guilt or non guilt are not static - it is very difficult to determine what happened (beyond a reasonable doubt) in many many many stories. Some people are so shattered by trauma, all we have left are pieces. That is how Keiko's life strikes me - we have Etsuko as the unreliable witness/perpetrator telling us what happened to Keiko that made her kill herself - that is the one truth that emerges from the book - I have a good understanding why Keiko killed herself. That truth emerges. Another way to consider this (that I just thought of) is that Sachiko has created Etsuko to tell her (Sachiko's story). Great conversation on this blog - thank you!

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  22. I have just re-read A Pale View of Hills for the 4th or 5th time since my first reading in the early 90s. I have enjoyed the comments here, all very thought-provoking. I think the ambiguity within the narrative is essentially what makes me return to this book periodically - like all good art it is forever open to (re)interpretation. By far Ishiguro's best book in my view.

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  23. I'm actually reading this book in light of my study of the 'after the bomb' period with all the cold war anxieties
    We get Ogata commenting on the breakdown of traditions and also his view on politics and the changing role of women
    It is definitely interesting to see how Etsuko tries to come to terms with her past
    I agree with the interpretation of Sachiko being a sort of parallel character to Etsuko.
    There is definitely some creepy imagery in relations to swings and ropes - as is seen at the end of Part One when Etsuko tells Niki of the dream of the little girl on the swing "the little girl isn't on a swing at all. It seemed like that at first. But it's not a swing she's on" - I later took this as Etsuko's envisionment of Keiko hanging herself. However, as there is no real sense of resolution at the end, it could just as easily be her memories of the deaths of children (if she was indeed the murderer)

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  24. Thank you for this brilliant discussion. I have just finished reading this book and I am very confused. I figured out early on that Etsuko is an unreliable narrator, but that pivotal scene with the switch to the first person and of course the rope realy threw me... I'm not sure what interpretation to adopt and I'm not sure Ishiguro has a firm "truth" in mind either. I think this book will occupy my thoughts for a while.

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  25. Hmm. I think from reading all this its clear that the author wanted to leave a lot open for interpretation. The comments earlier on from his interview seem to suggest that the memories recalled in the book are more about the frame of mind of Etsuko now than an accurate representation of the past. I've been thinking through all the possible readings suggested here and have agreed with them all at one point or another, though each leaves gaps to be had in making sense of other parts of the plot. At first I was convinced that Sachiko was Etsuko later in her life and that the interaction between Etsuko and Sachiko (which almost always occurred without anyone else but Mariko present), was Etsuko's younger self trying to make her older self a better person, whilst her older self tried to convince the younger to be a better mother to her child (there were a lot of references throughout to the problems of motherhood for the post-war community). Then I thought perhaps Etsuko might instead, or as well as, be this child murderer. It is hinted many times that she had a severely traumatic experience in the war, after which her father-in-law took her in. It would make sense if Etsuko's nervousness about motherhood also stemmed from her seeing that woman drown her baby during the war. Then there were the peculiarities where Mariko first 'mistakes' Etsuko for the (same?) pale woman who keeps asking her to come away with her. This all becomes more ominous with these child murders happening.

    To take a less literal view of all this, it makes most sense to me if the whole book is to be considered in light of Keiko's suicide and Etsuko's reservations about motherhood and the crime of bringing up a child in a post-war world. Her memories seem to be a crowded recollection of the crumbling of old Japan and the new fashions of the West permeating this culture for better or for worse. The reference to the rope continually entangled about Etsuko's foot makes sense to me in this light.The swinging child in Etsuko's dream may be the girl she heard of in the news who had been hung, blended with her own daughter whom she never saw, but was hanging for days in her apartment in England. This becomes bound up with the guilt that it was Etsuko's flight from Japan without regard for her daughter's well-being that makes it feel as if she tied the noose about her daughter's neck when she long ago made that choice. In light of this, the recollections about Sachiko and Mariko make sense as a story warped by time to explore Etsuko's own feelings of guilt and regret about her life. That crucially confusing scene at the end on the bridge really seems to make most sense to me in this light. The narrator breaks into the narrative. The recurring rope is tripping her up, but the rope is also in her hands and about to hang the child. We've just had a scene where Sachiko drowns the kittens - symbolic perhaps (and maybe real in Sachiko's story), of the disregard both women had of their daughters in their desperation to escape the staleness of their present lives and the trauma of the memories living in Japan continually revisits upon them.

    Also throughout the book is the interesting dichotomy of women looking with hope towards the possibilities that life in the West might bring them (along with perhaps an underlying knowledge that emigration will never really solve their problems) - especially important in this regard I think is the scene with the American woman, who Sachiko speaks to very warmly, whilst all the while scorning her fellow Japanese women. This is in contrast to most of the men in the book, who are in some way clinging to the past (exceptions are people like Shigeo, who question the traditions of
    the old way of life).

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  26. And just a couple more thoughts to finish up...

    It seems to me to be less a coherent retelling of events and more a book that meditates on the difficulties in Japan post WWII - how to be Japanese in the Western world, the problems there were in the rigidness of past tradition, and trying to find meaning in a world where everything has been torn apart. Almost everyone in the book has suffered horrific tragedy in the war and is now just trying to live on and build their lives anew whilst coming to terms with their loss.

    For Etsuko, the problem of the choice of which way of life to choose seems apparent in the lives of her daughters- to stay in a war-torn Japan seems embodied in Keiko and Mariko – to move to the West is to leave behind the old way of living (the positive side of this was continually emobodied in caring for elder relatives and living with them). The tragedy of Keiko and the distance between Etsuko and Niki really seem to epitomise the inevitability that both of these situations would lead to one way or another...

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  27. Etsuko is probably Sachiko. The whole novel is to me essentially like Etsuko is trying to justify her actions in the past. From the Etsuko-Sachiko conversation, you can somewhat see that Sachicko seems to be asking Etsuko for approval all the time. "Arent you happy for me" and what not, like she needs someone elses approval.

    And maybe the Mariko(Keiko?) is scared of the rope thing is kinda like a premonition that shes gonna die from hanging. Thats what I feel about that scene and It kinda creep me out a bit tbh.

    Plus when Niki asked what so special about the harbour at Nagasaki, Etsuko answers they ride cable cars that day and Keiko was so happy at that time when in fact, she was supposed to be pregnant at that time and Mariko was the one with her.

    Or I completely misread the whole novel and is now trying to make sense what is going on. Either way, a nice read and a good introduction to Ishiguro works for me!!!

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  28. Neither woman is a murderer. Keiko and Mariko are not the same person.

    There's a short part near the end where Etsuko is talking to Keiko about moving to England. It's placed in the narrative where Etsuko is going to look for Mariko. It's one of several parallels in the novel, another one is Mariko witnessing "the woman" drowning her baby and Mariko's mother drowning the kittens.

    The whole point of the Mariko story is that Etsuko was trying to be a good mother to Keiko because of how Mariko was mistreated, but in the end she did the same thing to Keiko that Sachiko did to Mariko, she made her leave her home.

    Re Keiko on the cable cars, gee whiz, they lived pretty close to em, doncha think they coulda gone more than once?

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  29. OR:
    Etsuko is Sachiko. Keiko is Mariko (the first child). She kills her second child by drowning and Mariko sees her. Niki is the 3rd child, raised abroad. Sachiko is not a serial child murderer but other mothers in the city, after the horrors of The Bomb, resort to infanticide.
    Or not...

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    1. This actually makes a lot of sense, because even in the beginning when Mariko tells Etsuko about the woman telling her she'll take her home, Etsuko laughs and says she must have imagined her. Moreover, if Sachiko is a projection of Etsuko's personality, the parallel between Mariko/Keiko watching Sachiko drown the kittens and Etsuko/the ghost woman drowning the baby fits in perfectly.

      But. It still leaves a lot of questions such as why she would kill the second child at all, the father and the family and Jiro.

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  30. Could it be that Etsuko has narrated the entire story pretty accurately except the episode on the bridge which happened with Keiko instead of Mariko. When it was Etsuko's turn to go to Britain, she might have come very close to murdering Keiko because she considered her a hassle. Later, guilt-striken, she reconstructed the event as having happened perfectly innocuously years earlier with Mariko with whom she had developed an almost daughter-like bond. However, poor Keiko, although unable to understand fully, was so traumatized that she could never trust her mother again and developed psychological problems which led to her suicide.

    It is hinted in the novel that Etsuko is not very pleased with her pregnancy. Her husband is emotionally distant. Moreover his lack of respect and patience with his own father could have turned her heart off parenthood. During this time, women in general are growing increasingly dissatisfied with their position in Japan. She had also probably taken inspiration from the very ambitious Sachiko. There could have been jealousy too. In fact when Sachiko drowns the kittens, Etsuko, although worried about Mariko, does nothing to stop her. She probably agrees that the kittens had to be got rid of.

    Still it is difficult to blame Etsuko. The novel is an excellent illustration of how over a period, tiny niggles which are a part of 'daily life' sometimes drive a 'normal' person over the edge.

    On an unrelated tangent, I'd like to mention that I discovered Kazuo Ishiguro only last week and have already read and thoroughly enjoyed two of his brilliant works. Probably an indication of what a big admirer I have become of this master storyteller. His insight into human psychology is astounding.

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    1. Note the way Etsuko speaks to the (unnamed) little girl on the bridge. Her tone is entirely different in this scene than in any other dialogue between her and Mariko.

      The little (unnamed) girl in this scene is Keiko, not Mariko. Keiko does not want to move to England. It isn't clear why they are moving, but it is possibly because Etsuko got tired of putting up with her demanding husband and his old-fashioned ways. Or he could be dead.

      I don't think either mother is a child-killer. Although, it is entirely possible that Mariko drowns while trying to rescue her kittens from drowning.

      The entire novel is Etsuko trying to figure out why Keiko committed suicide. She is searching her mind for some reason, or more accurately for a way to blame herself. The reason she thinks of her friendship with Sachiko is that Sachiko is a terrible mother. Possibly the reason that the only scene where Keiko speaks is the one on the bridge is that the bridge is where Etsuko last saw Mariko, a sweet little girl whose mother did not care about her.

      Mariko possibly drowned trying to rescue her kittens, accidentally killing herself.

      If I am wrong about the identity of the girl on the bridge, I am at least correct about this: Etsuko speaks to the little girl the way Sachiko speaks to Mariko throughout the novel. Etsuko does not speak to Mariko, or anyone else in the novel, for that matter, using this commanding sort of tone.

      The girl on the bridge is Keiko. I believe it says "[Etsuko] could almost see Mariko running up the riverbank" or something like that as the girl runs away. It doesn't say "Mariko ran up the riverbank" at any rate, and Etsuko had no reason to speak harshly to Mariko, if Mariko was the girl on the bridge...which she wasn't.

      It was Keiko.

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  31. At any rate, and remember this is only my opinion, I think any interpretation that involves either Etsuko or Sachiko plotting the death of either Mariko or Keiko (or even considering it) is incorrect. Although I must admit that this novel (one of the best I have ever read, BTW) leaves a lot open to interpretation. I just think the jump from "horrible mother" (which Sachiko certainly is) to "daughter killer" is, well, a bit of a stretch. Just my opinion.

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    1. Did you read the first comment, from the interview with Ishiguro? This is a key point I think: "So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people's stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection." Etsuko is certainly an unreliable narrator.

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    2. I did read that, and your interpretation may very well be correct. She is unreliable, at least in the sense that she's not telling the whole story.

      But with regard to the quote, especially with regard to "talking about things they cannot face directly through other people's stories," well...the novel is framed with scenes from England, after Keiko's suicide. The story told in the middle is mostly about Mariko and Sachiko. Their story parallels Etsuko and Keiko's in many ways. This could be, like you said, an indicator that a large portion of the novel is just delusion, but personally, I didn't read it that way. To me, Etsuko looking back at Sachiko and Mariko is exactly what Ishiguro said, that being Etsuko talking about something she cannot face directly through other people's stories. The "other people" here being Sachiko and Mariko.

      The "other people" part of the quote, to my mind, actually discredits the idea that Sachiko is Etsuko and Mariko is Keiko. If you have a different opinion with regard to that, please give it.

      Re "self-deception and self-protection," maybe Etsuko just imagined all or part of the novel. Maybe a lot of it never actually happened. But which parts happened, and which parts were imagined? How does the reader know? My interpretation assumes all of it really happened. Maybe the gaps in the narrative are not actually indicative of Etsuko being an unreliable narrator, maybe they are indicative of gaps in memory.

      Maybe the self-deception and self-protection indicate that Etsuko is drawing more parallels between herself as a mother and Sachiko as a mother than there really were. There are many instances of Sachiko being mean to Mariko, but (presumably) only one single solitary scene of Etsuko and Keiko talking to each other. And it just happens to be one of the times they weren't getting along. Maybe Ishiguro meant Etsuko was deceiving herself into thinking she was a bad mother, like Sachiko most certainly was.

      Maybe I'm wrong.

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    3. If you look at the post again, I said that I favor "Interpretation #2"; Interpretation #1 is the one that says Sachiko is Etsuko and Mariko is Keiko.

      However, I never re-read this and it was so long ago I can't really remember the book.

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  32. I must be the odd one out here because when I finished it, I thought that Keiko was was Mariko and Etsuko had adopted her and taken her away with her (maybe killed Sachiko). But yeah, all that has been said and read by me in the discussion thread, makes SO much more sense.
    I just need to put a lil more thought into my analyses haha.

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  33. I literally just finished reading this in a day, but immediately started googling for reviews because I like certain aspects of the book a lot but also hadn't (and still haven't) really formed a coherent theory about wtf was going on with the overarching plot and wanted to see what others were saying. I still have not come to a definite opinion on this, but one passage I haven't seen others mention yet that I think at least supports Interpretation 1 is in the very first chapter: Etsuko narrates: "....I heard two women talking at the tram stop, about the woman who had moved into her derelict house by the river. One was explaining to her companion how she had spoken to the woman that morning and had received a clear snub. Her companion agreed the newcomer seemed unfriendly -- proud probably . . ." Later we understand this newcomer is Sachiko, but Etsuko then goes on to say in the next paragraph: "Now I do not doubt that amongst those women I lived with then, there were those who had suffered, those with sad and terrible memories . . . It was never MY intention to appear unfriendly." (emphasis added) To me that is a muddling of the Etsuko-Sachiko identities from the very outset of the novel. There are just so many other threads, though, that don't feel remotely resolved -- e.g., Etsuko alludes to a "Nakamura-San" whom she apparently loved but "nothing had been decided" but he's never mentioned after that, how she exactly came to be taken into Ogata-San's house is similarly unclear, and was what going with the apparent rift between Sachiko/Etsuko and her cousin? It was a good book but I felt constantly pulled in a 1000 different directions with different plot points being thrown out there and never really figuring out what was going on with any of them. I have read and like many of Ishiguro's novels (and have to think that the constant allusions to "Kazuo," whom is only ever indirectly referenced in the novel as Ms. Fujiwara's son, and who she is constantly fretting works too much to find a wife, is perhaps a wry reference to his own relationship with his mother). This felt the most "unfinished" of his novels that I have read, but at least parts of it were great and I'm really enjoying reading the various interpretations of it in these comments, even if I'm 3+ years too late reading this post.

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  34. Hi, Elisa. Greetings from Spain. As most of you, I finished the book some weeks ago and I ended up very excited, but very doubtful about the meaning of the story and the secret around the characters. I put down the name of the novel in Google and I've gone this blog, in which I had a really good time reading your comments and approaches. Anyway, I don't know if you have mentioned two linked passages in the novel that can be very clarifying. Close to the end, Etsuko shows to her daughter a calendar and she tells that ists views are related to Inasa, where she lived a very especial excursion day with Keiko. This revelation connects with another excursion with Setsuko and Nariko narrated in last chapters, that ends up when Mariko is playing with another kid in a tree and she caused a little accident. That was certainly a special day for Etsuko, and afterwards she remembered it in the end of book. The link between both passages is very clear.

    Best regards!

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  35. Hello. Just finished the book. Stunned for half an hour. When I came back to my senses, my first thought was Etsuko and Sachiko are the same. In fact, I thought Etsuko invented Sachiko to dissociate herself from her past actions. Now this probably means E. did drown the kittens, and did leave Japan with her girl (Keiko). She invents Mariko, and gives her what was wrong with Keiko; which at least partly is her fault. Guilt is known to trigger dissociative personality; here are talking about dissociative personality by proxy.
    If we go with this interpretation, the business with the rope, child murders, and the pale woman become symbolic.
    Maybe it's just me, but can't imagine a serial child murderer living with her memories, dissociation or not.

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  36. I thought I had it all sussed - I consider myself a highly intelligent reader of novels, until, all of a sudden, there were no more pages, only black leaves. the story had ended. like most readers that so kindly shared their reviews here, I was stunned and confused but decide to retrace the last pages logically. Keiko, who hanged, had been confirmed to be Mariko when she told Niki of the outing in the hills. I assumed Setsuko went to America but left Mariko alone in the cottage so Etsuko adopted her. Husband Jiro was transferred by his Japanese firm to England. I always hoped Setsuko would leave Mariko with the old cousin and uncle in Japan (hence there would have been no need to cruelly drown the kittens) but Mariko probably stubbornly refused tu budge from the cottage though her mother had already left for Kobe. No one got murdered and the only victim of a messed up psyche is Mariko who later became known as Keiko.

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  37. can someobody tell me 3 reasons why Sachiko and mariko were confabulated by etsuko

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  38. In my opinion, I think that Mariko herself was Keiko, and that Sachiko was a projection of Etsuko's, um...can we say, woes at not being a good mother. She herself states that her recollection of memories could be unreliable, indicating that she was viewing Sachiko from a detached perspective - Etsuko. It could be that over time she did indeed become a better mother...and this "better mother" is how she chose to portray the Etsuko of her memories, whereas the Sachiko of her memories was how she used to be. As far as the 'rope' that scared Mariko in the last scene was concerned...I think it could just be a symbolism of how Etsuko was sealing Mariko/Keiko to this inevitable fate, and thereby "hanging" her.

    However, I still remain confused regarding the appearance of the "ghost", the parallels with the drowning episodes...and the father of Nikki. For some reason, I kept imagining her father (as absurd as may be) to be Shigeo Matsuda because of the repeated mentioning of his articles, and towards the end Niki obsessively reading her father's articles....any thoughts?

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  39. At one point she said that her husband could never really understand Japanese culture. I took that to confirm that he was not Japanese....... But, Shigeo didn't understand "traditional Japanese culture ". You may be onto something.

    My interpretation about the rope is that Etsuko/Sachico character contemplated strangling or hanging her daughter. She could not follow through. In the end her daughter may have hung herself because of those early memories.

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