By Martha Kean
Children are brought up to recognise stories as tales that fit neatly into the confines of predetermined moulds, bookended as it were by determinable beginnings and ends. The words ‘once upon a time’ and ‘they all lived happily ever after’ leap off the pages of children’s books, framing the colourful and fantastical narratives within. The message is clear: stories don’t just need endings; they need happy endings.
As a literature student and avid reader myself, these words not only seem unimaginative and overused, but, crucially, they fail to acknowledge the true essence of story-telling. Under the framework of this phraseology, the story itself is reduced to a mere hiccup, an interruption, in an otherwise romanticised and perfect fictional world. It is story-telling done backwards, where the point of interest is diminished and the expectation of resolution overemphasised. So what is it that we look for in stories? And what makes one successful?
I would confidently declare Kazuo Ishiguro to be one of the most accomplished story tellers of the 21st century. His debut novel A Pale View of Hills is enchanting, captivating and admirably crafted, and without giving anything away, it does not end with a satisfactory ‘happily ever after’.
The novel’s plot unravels across a number of temporally fluctuating narrative arcs, which all intersect. In the present day, we are introduced to the protagonist Etsuko, who is visited by her daughter Niki at her home in England. During this time, Etsuko reminisces about her former life in post-occupation Japan, pregnant (with her first daughter Keiko who we find out has since committed suicide), and married to an irksome man named Jiro. The narrative structure is further complicated when Etsuko begins to tell us about her friend Sachiko, whose story appears to act as a quasi-foil narrative, eerily echoing Etsuko’s own life.
As the plot thickens, what is striking about Etsuko’s narrative voice is how she exhibits an almost desperate need to recount her story, but is nonetheless unable to to do so in a direct and candid way. Narrative incongruences and ambiguities abound in the book, and much of it is simply left unexplained. The ending does not neatly complete the novel but rather forces readers to drastically reconsider everything they have read so far.
In a sense, the intrigue generated in A Pale View of Hills stems from Etsuko’s own challenges and shortcomings as a story-teller. As she grapples with her personal history, readers come to realise the importance of story-telling as a means of self-acceptance and even self-discovery. In bearing witness to Etsuko’s story-telling we see how the process in itself can be therapeutic, a wider comment on the nature of literature as a whole perhaps.
Among others of the most memorable stories I have read are Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. Both explore storytelling as a force of empowerment in light of patriarchal and post-colonial oppression. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, two women forge an unlikely friendship whilst living under the same roof as an abusive and tyrannical man in the landscape of war-torn Afghanistan. In The Colour Purple an epistolary narrative split between the correspondence of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, and letters from Celie to God, form a bleak and harrowing account of early 20th century race relations in America.
The two novels are fictional, but the stories they tell feel profoundly important. In recounting these stories, Hosseini and Walker give voices to real people who were unable to use their own, and they empower us, as readers, to think compassionately about people whose lives are unimaginably different to our own.
Not all stories end in ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. In fact, I would endeavour to suggest that the most successful ones don’t. After all, it is not the endings of stories that captivate us; it is the pages in between, the obstacles that have to be overcome, the characters we meet along the way, and the mere experience of gaining insight into someone else’s lived experiences, fictional or not.
Image: Nong Vang via Unsplash