Apr. 8th, 2010

tispity: (Book pile)
The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale

With quiet ruthlessness, she brought him to see that what he had thought of as the historical truth of their shared history was only a version, a narrative he had unconsciously shaped to cause the least pain to others and least blame to himself

I picked this one off the free book exchange shelf at work and it'll be heading back there soon enough as, while I'm glad I read it and did quite enjoy it, it's certainly not a keeper. The Whole Day Through is a rather sombre, understated little novel about missed opportunity. The main characters are Laura and Ben, former university sweethearts, who had long since gone their separate ways, and rediscover each other by chance when, both now in their forties, they find themselves separately called to Winchester to perform the duties of a carer. Laura is looking after her aged mother, a formidable university professor, whose lively mind is repeatedly failed by her increasingly frail body. Ben, meanwhile, is caring for his younger brother, Bobby, who suffers from Mosaic Downs Syndrome, although it quickly becomes clear that his attentions are largely unnecessary. Indeed as he cheerfully emerges in the adult world, belatedly discovering and enjoying his homosexuality, Bobby is repeatedly the main ray of light in this otherwise mostly cheerless read.

Gale creates some great characters here who are quirky but always believable: the novel is worth reading for its portrayal of Laura's unusual childhood alone, particularly the way she recalls trying to reconcile her unusual parent's annual holidays to a nudist camp with daily life at school and her desire to be a "normal" child. As the title suggests, this book is loosely structured around the events of a single summer day, but overall, I didn't find this device to be terribly persuasive. As most of the action is played out in flashbacks, it felt like an unconvincing distraction to keep returning to the very same day, and I found it hard to believe that so many events of life-changing importance could happen in such quick succession.

A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Noises from the harbour followed us across the water - the clang of hammers, the whine of machinery, the occasional deep sound from a ship's horn - but in those days, in Nagasaki, such sounds were not unpleasing; they were the sounds of recovery and they were still capable then of bringing a certain uplifting feeling to one's spirits.

Ishiguro's famously restrained tone is perfectly suited to the subject matter of this, his debut novel which deals with a Japanese widow's memories of summer in post-war Nagasaki, a community struggling to rebuild itself after the horrors of World War Two. The novel captures perfectly the ambivalent mood of the period, particularly the way in which the Japanese people were trapped between outrage and shame, and an awareness of their nation as at once victim and perpetrator. Ishiguro is well-known for being an author who leaves his readers to do much of the interpretative work, and this novel is no exception. The story that unfolds here is filtered through the long term memories of Etsuko, a widow now living in England and attempting to come to terms with the suicide of her eldest daughter. Her efforts continually take her back in her mind to the summer in which, pregnant with her first child, her life collided with that of an enigmatic woman and child, living as vagrants in an abandoned cottage near Etsuko and her husband's apartment block. This little novel is permeated with such an air of sinister mystery that it becomes a real page turner and I read it all in just one day.

The ending, however, disappointed me. I generally enjoy open ended novels. Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, for example, left me energised as I tried to settle in my own mind exactly what had happened and, after much thought, I finally felt confident in my own interpretation of the novel's ending. A Pale View of the Hills is a little too startlingly open for comfort however. As I was reading I got to the point where I realised I only had a page left to go, and couldn't possibly find answers to half the questions buzzing around my brain. Ishiguro teases the reader with several particularly uncomfortable possibilities at the end of this book, but for each explanation there are factors that don't fit and the ultimate verdict is open. This, of course, is the point and the book delivers a powerful, and all too true, message about the devastating unreliability of memory, particularly those memories of traumatic events which often cause the rememberer to distance themselves from the event in striking and desperate ways. This is worth reading as a powerful and thought-provoking depiction of a difficult and intriguing place and period in history, but if you like your stories neatly resolved - or even partially resolved - then this probably isn't the book for you.

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