Following the suicide of her eldest daughter, Etsuko and her younger daughter Niki spend a lot of time together, talking about the past, and particularly the period before Etsuko left postwar Nagasaki for England. She tells Niki about a woman she knew called Sachiko, once wealthy but fallen on hard times because of the war. Etsuko found herself looking after Sachiko’s disturbed young daughter Mariko when Sachiko periodically disappeared to be with the American lover promising to take them away from a city that never stopped to properly mourn the 73,000 killed by the atomic bomb before building over the top of the ashes.
Every character in the novel has a hole in their life and most of them don’t talk about it. For some it is a husband who never came back from the war, or family members wiped out in the bombing, but for others it is their secret lives happening off the page, outside Etsuko’s ken. The novel works as a passive mystery, with the truth slowly unfolding, the holes slowly being filled, one way or another.
The passive nature of the female characters (and the stilted dialogue they are sometimes burdened with, especially at the beginning) initially made me wonder if Kazuo Ishiguro is simply stronger writing men. But it’s written the way it is because it has to be, as becomes apparent towards the end, and as Ishiguro’s first novel I can forgive it lacking the perfected sheen of the two later novels of his that I have read. Sometimes dreamlike, other times reading like a parable, it’s a short novel that doesn’t outstay its welcome, but which I perhaps should have read before his others.