Monday, March 06, 2006

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I just finished Never Let Me Go in the car on the way back from lunch. The grey Burnaby day outside was blustery, blowing trash around just like in the dreary closing scene of the novel, supposedly somewhere in the fields outside of Norfolk.I was moved by this book, never quite to real tears, though the sentiment was there; but part of that might just have been my hangover.

Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, and I'd heard a few good things about it, so last weekend while I was stranded at the Brentwood mall I picked up a copy. The novel is an elegaic look at the lives of three students of a special boarding school in England. It focuses on their adolescence and young adulthood. There's a subtle love triangle, and a lot of attention to the nuances of gestures, intonation, and other minute details of conversations. By honing in on this emotional minutae, Ishiguro keeps the real emotional punch of the novel always at a discreet arm's length. Because these children are not ordinary. They are clones, though the word is never specifically used, created to act as organ donors later in life. Eventually, they will each 'donate' enough organs that they 'complete' having sacrificed themselves to better the lives of a world that cloisters them away so it can pretend they don't exist.

The novel seldom directly spells out all of the above, choosing instead to perform a patient, carefully controlled reveal on the lives of Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy, the novel's protagonist. In practice this plays out like a cross between The Remains of the Day and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Ishiguro's novel is almost Victorian in it's sublimation of emotion and big picture details. It frequently reads like a drama of manners. It's no accident, in fact, that Kathy's school project is on "Victorian literature" - Ishiguro is likely the master of the modern form of this genre.

I thought several times about Lynn while reading this book, never quite sure why. It wasn’t until I finally asked her about it that she reminded me she'd read and posted a review of it on her fine site: On the Nightstand here - in rereading her comments on the book, I find that I didn't necessarily agree with her rather cold assesment: "But it didn't grab me the way I thought it would. I wanted someone in this book to get angry at the situation, or at the hand that life had dealt them, and no one did. Which kinda implies that if you can't get excited about it, why should I?" I guess I was moved by the story, and impressed by it's use of subtlety and lack of emotional outburst. In some ways, it was these character's lack of awareness of the tragedy of their situation that made it all the sadder.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also point out that behind the stage prop of clones and organ harvesting, this was basically a tale of love deferred. It could apply to any of us. Though the end of our lives aren't scheduled for termination in accordance with the needs of a public hungry for our innards, we are all on the same clock that Ruth, Tommy and Kathy are. Your life will tick away, you will watch the people you care about get sick and die before you can ever say to them everything you wanted to say, and eventually, you too will die either alone or leaving someone else alone. Don't ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for you.


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