I read Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, as part of the course on “Memory in Fiction and Film” taught by Professor Robert White, last fall at Hunter College. As I’ve noted in other blogs, I’m a very fast reader, and with dense fiction, such rapid reading may cause me to lose significant detail. I get the outline, but I may be, in the end, puzzled because I’ve missed a clue here or there. And so I had to read A Pale View of Hills a second times time more carefully, in order to note, several pages before the end, a clue that firmly establishes the narrator as “unreliable.” She was, herself, responsible for the death of her own daughter. This shocked me as an allegedly reliable reader, and it also made me wonder about Ishiguro as a novelist. What is he really after?
So I bought two other novels. The Remains of the Day, well-known also as a successful film (which I had not seen), also has at its heart another kind of unreliable narrator, one who is so focused on his correct working behavior as butler in an important British house that he closes his mind not only to the politics of his employer, but even to the suffering of his own father. The novel also moves forward through the memory of the narrator, who unevenly understands the import of what he had once closed his mind to.
Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel, set in a community of children seemingly without parents. given an idyllic education with recreational features, as though to produce well-rounded citizens. They are eventually told that they were being prepared to be organ-donors and the “carers” for other organ-donors. Again, memorable moments in the novel arise from memories of questions left unanswered, or answered partially, the chief of which has to do with the possibility of escaping their chosen fate.
Still unsatisfied, still wanting more, when next in a book store, I picked up When We Were Orphans, and in some ways, this novel may answer some of my questions about Ishiguro’s view of what he is doing. I mean general questions like “What is it that Ishiguro wants his readers to think about, to understand, to gain comfort from, or feel endless pain about?” I have had this sense from the beginning, especially since the first novel I read, A Pale View of Hills, was set mainly in a Japan following the two bombings, and only sideways and most indirectly focuses on a mother’s inability to deal with the suicide of a young daughter. In some ways similarly, in When We Were Orphans, the novel I’ve just finished, the young British boy who grows up in an idyllic Shanghai with idyllic parents and even an idyllic Japanese friend close to his age, becomes a world-famous detective, able to solve important international cases. Can he, in war-torn Shanghai find his parents who disappeared almost two decades ago? Can he find his boyhood Japanese friend? And how much responsibility has to be placed on the British for the destructive opium trade. This novel strikes me as more ambitious both politically and structurally than any I’ve read thus far. I am also certain that the plot pushed me to read too quickly. I am going to read this novel again, for I’m certain I need to.
And I am writing these notes very quickly, in the hope of finding others who enjoy Ishiguro’s fiction and would be willing to write about one or another of his novels, or about a theme. I’d be glad to give space to a brief or several page-long essay about some aspect of Ishiguro’s fiction, or to a comment about what I’ve said here, too quickly and too briefly.