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Ishiguro's first novel is haunting, reminding me of his other beautifully written work, Never Let Me Go, published in 2005. In both books, a female narrator tells of what happens in her past.
Although I loved the prose, the narrative was frustrating. I had lots of questions while reading which remained unanswered and after finishing, I wrote in the margin, "I don't get it - at all." In situations like this, I rely on Goodreads and found that many others felt the same way.
Halfway through the book I questioned whether or not Etsuko Sharingham was a reliable narrator. But I think the true question Ishiguro is exploring is would any of us be a reliable narrator in the same situation? He answers via her musing:
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.Is the same message within the title? In my journal, while thinking of the word "pale" and with a thesaurus' help, I wrote the following: washed out, weak, fragile, dim, faint, feeble, muted, faded, subtle and soft. After reading the book, I think the title suggests that views of the past expressed in the book will be dim, faint, and muted or in other words, "pale".
Etsuko is a widow, living alone is some English village and at the beginning of the book, her daughter Niki, who lives in London is visiting. We find out that six years earlier, Keiko, her daughter via her first husband, committed suicide while living in Manchester (horrible - she hung herself and was not found until a few days later). Prior to that, Keiko lived at home but in self-imposed isolation from her family. She did not interact with anyone, not her mother, step-father or step-sister...for years. Very strange, bizarre behavior. Why was this tolerated?
It is during Niki's visit that the story is told. Etsuko's memories are prodded after some discussions with Niki about the past. An image of a little girl playing on a swing, seen while they are at a teashop, sticks with Etsuko, invades her dreams and causes her to remember people and situations when she lived in Japan. So the narrative swings from present to past and in the end, is all tied to Keiko's suicide.
Within Etsuko's memories is another question that Ishiguro explores: what are the consequences of a mother's guilt? In her case, was it so great, so intolerable, that she had to invent an alternate mother (Sachiko) and daughter (Mariko) in order to remember the past? Is it possible for a person to disassociate from themselves so much that they create a fictional reality? Maybe. To me, this is a disturbing question.
As a survivor of suicide myself, I found this passage to be tragically true:
I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture - of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end. The horror of that image has never diminished but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one's own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.I would recommend this book with the following caveat - beware of unanswered questions and an ambiguous ending. If you do read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.