What’s Malvern Hills all about?:
In this sublime story cycle, Kazuo Ishiguro explores love, mu2sic and the passage of time. Gentle, intimate and witty, Nocturnes is underscored by a haunting theme: the struggle to restoke life’s romance, even as relationships flounder and youthful hopes recede. In Malvern Hills our narrator is a struggling musician who is trying to make it big in the London music scene. He escapes for a while to stay with his sister in the Malvern Hills while continuing to write songs and helping them in their cafe. A Swiss couple come into the cafe who are also musicians, but there is a lot of tension in the air, and our narrator ends up knowing them better and finding out why.
What did I think?:
In Malvern Hills, the third short story in this collection, we meet a musician – guitarist and song-writer to be exact, who is trying to get himself in a band so that he can be hopefully fully involved in the London music scene, play a better variety of gigs etc. This is proving much more difficult than he thought as while the auditions seem to go well, as soon as he mentions that he writes his own songs, he is given the “Thanks for coming but…” spiel. There is also the fact that he keeps running into old university friends who are eager to learn how his search for “fame and fortune” is going since he left the course. In frustration, he decides to spend the summer at his sisters in the Malvern Hills, where she and her husband run a little cafe, and he can be a handy third person to help out, and have time to play his guitar and work on his songs. He fears that going back home will make him feel slightly claustrophobic, but it turns out he feels slightly nostalgic for the peaceful hills which he can re-discover at his leisure. This is until he works in the cafe, and old faces from his past return, quizzing him on what he is up to with his life. One particularly unwelcome guest is a woman called Mrs Fraser, or Hag Fraser as he has always “fondly” called her, who used to make his life a misery at school:
“Her aside, school hadn’t been that bad, but she’d had it in for me from the start, and when you’re just eleven years old, there’s nothing you can do to defend yourself from someone like her.”
As he feels all his old hatred returning he is slightly comforted when his sister and her husband tell him that she has had a hard time of it recently, her husband left her for a much younger woman, and she was having to run the B&B they owned by herself. Not only this, but there were rumours that she was failing dismally and customers were checking out almost as soon as they had checked in. Ah…karma! Our narrator also amuses himself at the cafe by giving the customers amusing names, so that he can remember their orders, of course. There is Donkey Face, Winston Churchill and his wife and “The Krauts,” who are actually a Swiss couple called Tilo and Sonja, and the main focus of the story. Our narrator notes that they seem just like any other middle-aged couple, except that the husband is VERY enthusiastic about the cafe, the hills, life in general using grand gestures with his hands and beaming from ear to ear. It starts to become a bit more interesting when the husband tries to include his wife in the conversation but she stares pointedly at her guidebook and ignores him completely. Then the wife, Sonja becomes extremely irritated with an anger that our narrator notes has been latent for quite a while and is particularly cross about how long she has had to wait for her sandwich. Tilo comes back in from where he has been admiring the BEAUTIFUL scenery, and does not seem to register anything is amiss with his wife. Our narrator, who has also become angry with Sonja for her attitude recommends that they stay at Mrs (Hag) Fraser’s hotel if they are looking for a place to stay, as a way to get back at the couple.
The following day when our narrator is singing, playing guitar and working on a song in the hills, he becomes aware of two people watching him, and he realises it is the couple from the day before. What a change however, Sonja is cheerful, friendly and smiling and extremely complimentary of his music, and Tilo is his same enthusiastic self, which makes him warm to them slightly. He finds out they are actually professional musicians, and it seems that it is their love of music and performing that has bound them together for so long. Whilst playing them a song, they even sit down with their arms around each other, and he can sense what music means to them both. Saying that, he can still sense tension – when Sonja talks about the Swiss traditional music that they rarely perform any more and when they talk about Dusseldorf, where their son is currently living, but seems estranged from his parents. Nevertheless he goes away feeling slightly guilty for having recommended they stay at Hag Fraser’s hotel.
The next day, after a row with his sister, our narrator goes again into the hills with a slight hopefulness at coming across Tilo and Sonja again. He does meet Sonja, but her alone, as Tilo has gone off by himself for a walk. This is when the tensions in their marriage become glaringly apparent as Sonja confides in him about her husband and his limitless enthusiasm for everything in the world, and that she felt herself changed as a person, never having been as angry in her younger years. Our narrator asks her advice on what she thinks he should do regarding his music and she gives it, making him consider a lot more things as he works out the rest of his song.
I think this is the kind of story you can only appreciate if you read it more than once, which is what I have had to do with a couple of stories in my Short Story Challenge. With this one, I definitely got more from it on the second reading, which is always a nice surprise and makes it much easier to write a review. As with the previous two stories in this collection, it highlights the importance of music in our characters lives, but also suggests that sometimes, music isn’t enough to hold two people together. I didn’t really connect with the main character on either readings I’m sorry to say, he came across slightly bratty, but I was completely intrigued by the story of Tilo and Sonja, who seemed far more interesting characters. However, at the end of the second reading, I did find myself wishing for a follow up, just to see if our narrator did end up as successful recording artist, and what happened to Tilo and Sonja after that second day on the hills. I think this is testament to a great writer which, if you give him a chance, will provide you with a story that you can really immerse yourself in.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):
NEXT SHORT STORY: Ghosts With Teeth by Peter Crowther from the collection A Book of Horrors