Saturday, August 13, 2005

Booker longlist, Never Let Me Go review

The 2005 Booker longlist is out, as most of you litter-ary types will already know. Much excitement in the blogosphere about what a good year it’s been for fiction, with a number of heavyweights publishing new novels. And this blog has even invited contributors to write reviews of the longlisted novels, a very nice idea I think. (Wish I could sign up but too busy this week to even meet my office deadlines!)

I’ve read five of the longlisted books but have written only one official review so far, of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for Biblio magazine early this year. Wasn’t too happy with it; I was asked to do 1600 words and I think the review rambled on for much longer than it had to. (While I don’t care for those 200-300 word "short reviews" we in the profession are often asked to do, I’m not a big endorser of the overlong, thesis-like book review either; the optimum length as far as I’m concerned should be 800-900 words.)
Here’s the Never Let Me Go review.

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"My name is Kathy H, I’m thirty-one years old" begins the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, who then proceeds, in the mannered, hesitating style typical of this writer’s protagonists, to tell us a little more about herself. Kathy is a "carer", the word itself instantly creating a disconnect (why not just say "caretaker"?) that suggests this isn’t going to be a conventional narrative. She speaks of her job looking after "donors" and how tiring it can get, in terms of both physical travel and emotional stress. And then she does what every Ishiguro narrator does: she sifts through her memories.

In Kathy’s case, these memories centre on Hailsham, the school she grew up in, and the trajectory of her friendships with two other students, Ruth and Tommy. Many of her recollections initially seem no different in tone and flavour from any of our own memories of growing up, making and losing friends. But reading on, a sense of unease gradually begins to develop. It soon becomes apparent that there’s something out of the ordinary about Hailsham and its students. There is no mention of parents. The guardians say cryptic things and are unnaturally strict in some matters. Sherlock Holmes books are banned from the library because of smoking references. A mysterious woman known as "Madame" makes occasional visits to the school and there are rumours of a "Gallery", where the best artwork produced by the children is sent. An abnormal emphasis is placed on the need to be creative.

Though the central premise of the plot isn’t a big secret (it’s revealed only around 70 pages into the book and isn’t exactly crucial to the larger themes), I’m still a bit uneasy about disclosing it here. But not doing so would make this review vague and self-defeating. So here goes: we soon learn that the children of Hailsham are genetically created clones, being prepared for a lifetime of donating their vital organs. "Your lives are set out for you," blurts out a well-meaning teacher who can’t bear to see the students dreaming about becoming film stars. "You were brought into this world for a purpose and your futures, all of them, have been decided."

Read those words outside their context, however, and one senses that Ishiguro’s real concerns lie beyond his ostensible set-up. Never Let Me Go is really about how our lives are pre-designed for us, how the paths we take are predetermined by a number of factors beyond our control, and that for most people the concept of free will is a cruel illusion. It’s also in a very particular sense about formal education and the role educational institutions play in inuring us to the horrors, the unpredictabilities of life -- about how, going to school every day as children, we never get an actual sense of how whimsical, random, even pointless, life might turn out to be. A key passage from the final section, the words of a former schoolteacher, reads:

"Sometimes we kept things from you, lied to you. Yes, in many ways we even fooled you. I suppose you could even call it that. But we sheltered you during those years, and we gave you your childhoods...Look at you both now! I’m so proud to see you both. You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you?"


These are universal concerns and make it clear that the science-fiction aspect of the story is little more than a red herring. Contrary to what some reviewers have suggested, the author never appears to be making any strong cautionary statements about genetic engineering or cloning; nor is he much bothered with the particulars of his alternate society. Even in the climax, when a character laments the replacing of an old, kind world by a more efficient, scientific (but also crueler and harsher) new one, it can be read equally as a reference to the passing of childhood’s idealism and its substitution by adulthood’s cynicism.

This is Kazuo Ishiguro’s sixth novel in 23 years and it has most of his trademarks. These include, first of all, reticent narrators who seem to know less about themselves than we, the readers, do; these are emotionally repressed people who betray their lack of self awareness even as they try to impress their convictions on us. The self-deception persists till the end -- the books invariably wrap up on a bittersweet note, with the seeming cheeriness of the protagonists unable to camouflage an aching sense of loss. Themes recur too, some of which will be obvious even to the casual reader who isn’t especially interested in the author’s oeuvre: there are complex parent-child relationships that perpetuate a cycle of disappointment from which the characters can never escape. Sometimes, as in When We Were Orphans (2001) and The Unconsoled (1995), the parent is missing and there’s an increasingly desperate search (this motif finds an atypical treatment in the new book, with the futile hunt for "possibles" -- the people from whom the students might have been cloned). There is also the elegy for the passing of an old world, as in The Remains of the Day (1989) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), a world that the narrator cherishes and grieves for, though the reader knows better. There is the stench of unnecesarily sacrificed lives, of people giving up the things that really count -- relationships -- in pursuit of ideals that often turn out to be hollow and illusionary.

These signposts of Ishiguro’s writing can be listed without much trouble. What cannot be conveyed quite so easily is the wealth of detail, the astonishing minutiae to be found in the recollections of his characters, the way they search for meaning in the most intricately connected memories and how very specific experiences turn into something anyone can relate to. "I’m sure somewhere in your childhood you too had an experience like ours that day," says Kathy at one point. "Similar if not in the actual details then inside, in the feelings." She could be speaking for any of Ishiguro’s narrators.

Never Let Me Go has all these elements in varying degrees; like all of its author’s past works, it draws you into a very particular world and holds you there. But it’s flawed in some unexpected ways. The use of the alternate-society device may be an interesting change of pace for the author, but it also draws attention to a possible shortcoming. One might ask if Ishiguro has become overly preoccupied with the same set of themes, so that he has to use a new framing structure for each new book to couch the fact that it’s about the same things all over again.

In an illuminating interview to January Magazine a few years ago, Ishiguro said: "In a way I've started to care less and less about what's happening out there, in some kind of supposed real world. I've become more and more interested in what's happening inside somebody's head."

It’s an approach that has already yielded powerful dividends -- especially in the underappreciated The Unconsoled, one of the most singular works of literature in recent memory and one that expanded the boundaries of surrealistic writing. But when an author reaches the point where entire sentences recur from one work to the next (the "Cottages" section of Never Let Me Go carries strong echoes of a short story, "The Village", that Ishiguro wrote for the New Yorker a few years ago), it’s possible to wonder whether he’s in danger of carrying the self-indulgence too far.

The other problem rests with the climax. All of Ishiguro’s books -- even The Unconsoled, that most oblique of narratives -- contain moments moments that cut to the heart of the story. But true to the author’s style these are most effective when they are handled subtly -- as in The Remains of the Day, when the butler Stevens acknowledges that he threw away his opportunity for a happy life, with an almost offhand "why not admit it, at that moment my heart was breaking" - the most explicit admission of grief in the book. But in Never Let Me Go, the epiphany comes in the form of a "let’s sit down and explain things" climax. The over-exposition is disappointing because Ishiguro’s great strength is allusion. And besides, we never really learn anything we hadn’t already guessed at.

But even when Ishiguro is working at less than full steam -- even when the broad structure of his novels is less than satisfying -- few other writers can equal him in conveying desolation and loss, and in the most elegant, beautiful prose. When, in the climax of Never Let Me Go, two people are told, "you poor creatures...now you’re by yourselves" and when the book ends with the narrator impassively contemplating "everything I’d ever lost since my childhood", at those moments all the minor flaws and irritants, and even the unresolved science fiction, cease to matter. All that counts then is this writer’s almost unparalleled ability to draw us into wasted lives, to make us sympathize and care.

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