“Young women these days are all so headstrong”
Continuing the Japanese theme from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, this 200-page novel is set predominantly in Nagasaki. We do flit back and forth between 1980s England and 1950s Japan, but the main focus is definitely post-war Japan.
I struggled with this so much – I was surprised that I finished it. Ishiguro being such a revered name, I kept assuming that I would happen across the marvellous piece of writing… and it never happened. There appears to me to be nothing at all special about the writing – the sparse style (which I’ve already admitted I don’t get on with) was devoid of any beauty or flourish, and the characters were difficult and unsympathetic; I couldn’t really ever get to grips with any of them.
In this book, nothing is obvious. We have to deduce that Etsuko is a widow; once she goes back to Japan in her memories we have to deduce that she was in the early stages of pregnancy from “At that point in my life, I was still wanting to be left alone”; and a romance for Etsuko before she married Jiro is briefly alluded to but further clarification is not forthcoming. The whole book is written in a very “softly, softly” approach – the same approach that the conversations take – never broaching a topic directly, but instead coming at it from a number of different angles, coming back to it again and again if the conversational partner is avoiding it. I found this style really frustrating, although (while I know little of Japanese culture), I’m assuming that this is considered polite in Japan – not to address a topic directly means that a person can never be forced into speaking of something?
Niki, the English-raised daughter, is in a sense more direct, but she too is quite apathetic, a pale rendition of a person. Etsuko and Niki spend long periods talking at cross-purposes, serving to highlight the generational and cultural chasm between them. Etsuko has a strange relationship with her father-in-law (it seems to pre-date her husband), but this is never clarified; and as for her husband, who seems to be a lazy, ungrateful, rude piece of nothing, with boorish, misogynist friends:
“That’s typical of women. They don’t understand politics. They think they can choose the country’s leaders the same way they choose dresses.”
I haven’t even got started on Sachiko and Mariko, who both behave truly bizarrely throughout the novel – I’ve made a list of the ways in which Sachiko acts strangely, both towards her daughter, for whom she seems to care not a bit, and towards Etsuko, apparently her only friend.
I just don’t understand. Can someone enlighten me, or is this a dud?