For some reason I always feel the need to choose something special to read on New Year's Eve, start to finish if possible, and then again something that will set the scene for what's to come, that first book of the New Year, and looking back it never seems to fail.
I strolled along the shelves finger-brushing the spines and wondering were it would lead until my eye fell on Kazuo Ishiguro, a writer I have long felt I have not done justice to in my reading.
I read The Remains of the Day as my first book of 1990, the year after it won the Booker and Never Let Me Go in the year it was shortlisted. Nothing in between and I was left slightly non-plussed by Nocturnes last summer deciding not to write about it here because I couldn't actually think of anything constructive to say.
True, I'd read it in the depths of those sweltering June days when we thought we were in for a scorchio summer; several drowsy garden reading sessions later and it was clear I'd missed something and perhaps needed to pay more attention, return to Kazuo Ishiguro's beginnings and work back through his books in chronological order.
There can be real benefits to the Read In Order strategy for me, a chance to spot an author's growth and development from one book to the next and so my hand settled on A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel and already I'd learned something. I'd always thought it was A Pale View of the Hills and there is a subtle difference in the meaning and inflection if you take away the suggestion that this is only one set of hills we're talking about here.
In fact this became a strange and haunting end of year read, reflecting as it does on that period of time when Japan was also undergoing cataclysmic change in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one era was ending and a new one was finding its place, and all beautifully demonstrated through a small cast of characters who find themselves all positioned slightly at odds with each other on the spectrum of change.
The past reveals Etsuko's husband struggling to maintain a balance between the old and the new, her father- in- law who firmly rejects the new, a friend Sachiko who, having fallen into near destitution from a life of privilege, is desperate to embrace new opportunities with a daughter Mariko sadly caught up in the confusion. An old family friend Mrs Fujiwara who is determined to make good with what is left her despite what has been lost. Etsuko herself is expecting her first baby, and there are startling things to be revealed about that baby, Keiko, during her sister Niki's visit to her mother many years later. Thus does Kazio Ishiguro provide, through his characters rather than his plot, a means of delineating a changing world.
Plot is light in terms of what is told and that felt right. That lightness contrasts well with the unspokeness of what has gone before, all too monumentally unsayable and requiring only the briefest of references as a reminder if one were needed. No reminder is required, every page of this book seemed to have the tragedy and sadness of Nagasaki engraved on it, the fall-out from the bomb that you never see or hear somehow echoed in my mind with great clarity.
But how refreshing plot-lightness can be, that less is more approach, offering that chance for attention to focus on the minutiae. A game of chess always attracts my attention, such a good literary device for telling so much and the one between Jiro and his father is no exception as it explores themes of strategy and patience, traditional etiquettes fast disappearing and the growing rift between father and son played out on the board.
There is a delicious amount of ambiguity that kept me pondering, the merest hints that all is not as it seems and doubts to be cast on the reliability of Etsuko's telling of her history. All manner of reader guides and author interviews online throw up any number of possible scenarios and outcomes, making A Pale View of Hills one of those remarkable reads that really earns its cover price.
Pale is a word used by Kazuo Ishiguro throughout and cleverly in several contexts. Not only for the title, and the meaning that could be invested in Etsuko's depth and accuracy of recall, but a quick check of definitions proved invaluable for the variety of other interpretations which could apply. Ultimately it returned me to a real sense of the bleached-out colourless aspects of a once proud and colourful country left decimated. That melancholy sense of a dilution and weakening of the old ways, a loss of brilliance to be replaced with the insipid until it can be reborn, if it ever can.
In mourning we grieve the dead; in melancholia we die with them according to Freud and for some reason it was something that came to mind as I read A Pale View of Hills.
So that's me successfully launched on a complete start to finish re-read (or first read), and a better appreciation of Kazuo Ishiguro and it anyone fancies reading along through the year you can't go wrong with this one, next up An Artist of the Floating World and I'd love to know your thoughts.