And now back to books

Thanks, everyone, for your kind comments about Hobgoblin’s father and about my interview; things are beginning to get back to normal or at least are getting closer to it, so it’s time to return to book talk.

I finished two books during the last week, Never Let Me Go and Boswell’s Life of Johnson; I thought I’d write about the former today, as it’s been on my mind ever since I finished it. I loved it so much that I told a work colleague about it who immediately asked if she could borrow my copy, and I told another friend about it who just told me she now has a copy and will read it this weekend. I love it when people listen to me!

One of the things I found so compelling is the way Ishiguro writes about a subject so eerie and frightening and mysterious — human clones — in a manner that’s perfectly normal and straightforward — and beautiful and insightful as well. This could be a regular kind of coming-of-age novel; it’s all about Kathy H.’s relationships with her school friends and teachers and her efforts to understand the world and her role in it. She and her friends fight and make up and try to figure out the lives of their teachers and think about their futures, just as normal children do. And Kathy is a wonderfully appealing protagonist; this is a first-person story, told by a 31-year-old Kathy looking back at her life, and she’s very smart and observant and insightful into relationships and social dynamics and conversations. It’s a pleasure to watch her mind at work, describing the shifting moods and voices of her friends; I love the depth and carefulness with which she describes everything — I love real people and characters both who put that much care into thinking about other people.

But as normal as that all sounds, what Kathy and her friends are trying to come to terms with is the fact that they are clones created so that their organs can be harvested for “regular” people. And I think part of the brilliance of this book is the way Ishiguro slowly reveals the facts about their lives and the way the characters both know the truth about themselves and don’t know it — as children they know some of the facts but they don’t really grasp them and later when they grasp those facts a bit better, they still have ways of talking around them. After leaving school they become “carers,” or caretakers of those in the process of donating organs, and then they become actual “donors” who spend their time recovering from operations until they can no longer recover and they die. Facing the facts about their fates head-on is one of the hardest things the characters ever have to do.

And this brings me to my other reason for loving this book: it strikes me as a book that’s really about having to face death, and while the characters have a particularly cruel death ahead of them, that doesn’t take away from the fact that we are in the same situation. We grow up knowing that we will die, or learning the basic fact of it somewhere so early on that we really don’t know when we learned it, and then spend our lives thinking — or not thinking — about what that basic fact means. This book about clones whose lives have a carefully defined “meaning” to them — they exist to provide healthy organs — makes me think about what meaning my own life has in the face of death — if any. The meaning Ishiguro’s characters find, if there is any at all, is in the moments of companionship as they help each other face their lives. But in this novel moving towards death ultimately means increasing isolation.

It’s a sad book, and a particularly sad one to read while mourning the loss of a family member (I suggested to the Hobgoblin that he read it — but not now), but I found it just the right book for me at the right time. I think I needed something to help me think through just what it was my own life was touching up against.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “And now back to books

  1. Edd

    Dorothy,

    I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” some while ago and I still can not say for sure whether or not I liked it. Normally this is not a problem for me – I finish a book and automatically on some subconscious level I answer yes or no. A reviewer and critic I am not but your post puts out a perspective not seen before by me. I have pulled the book from my library shelf and will begin with another try after finishing the current book I am reading. Thank you…

  2. Dorothy, I am always looking for book recommendations, so when you mention something that sounds interesting, I put it on my NYPL queue. That goes for Ishiguro. I know that I’ve read something of his, but will give this one a go. “Yoga” was excellent and I’ve recommended it to several people.

  3. If you didn’t know what the book was about, and he does reveal things fairly slowly, it does seem exactly like a coming of age story. The book is so creepy, but it is also really matter of fact, too. Ishiguro never ceases to amaze me–his work is always excellent. If you have not read The Remains of the Day, I recommend that one, too. It is really nice reading a book that fits in well with how your life is happening to go at the moment. It just makes it an even more satisfying experience!

  4. I loved Never let me go. I wouldn’t say as Danielle that it is creepy, but I understand what she she means: everybody takes that situation very normally and no clone ever rebels against his/her fate. The school teacher finds it sad but really don’t do anything about it. There is a sense of fatalism and denial. Maybe Ishiguro meant to show to us “normal people” how free we are in our life.

  5. This book is on the top of my what to read on the airplane in three weeks list. It’s very likely going to be the winner.

  6. Maybe one thing Ishiguro wanted us to remember is that when a society accepts certain beliefs as justifiable and authoritative, ceases to question the ethical ramifications of such beliefs, and raises a generation that never knew a different set of values…terrible things can result. Questioning a system that No One Questions is terribly difficult.

    It has happened before, and will, no doubt, happen again–concerning science, race, and religion.

    This is one of those books that kept me enthralled, but that I could never say I enjoyed. It made me think and continues to make me think when someone mentions it, but leaves a kind of pall over my spirit at the thought of such a society.

  7. I’ve had this book on my shelves for ages without picking it up. You’ve just moved it rapidly up the pile, Dorothy! I love the way you describe it.

  8. Edd — I hope you enjoy it more the second time around. Your description of your usual clear response is interesting because I feel quite differently — I’m often ambivalent and uncertain how I feel about a book.

    Fendergal — I do hope you enjoy it, and I’m so glad you like the Yoga book!

    Danielle, I have read Remains of the Day (and seen the movie) and I loved it — loved it! I’d like to read everything by Ishiguro at some point.

    Smithereens, the fact that everybody in the book takes their situation as normal is what I find so bizarre — but when you think about it, is regular life “normal”? Not at all!

    Stefanie — I think it would be a wonderful choice. I found it very absorbing and think it would be good for a plane trip :)

    Jenclair, I know what you mean about the pall the book leaves; it’s so very sad and chilling, you are right. Ishiguro dramatizes the problem of setting ethics aside so very well.

    Litlove, thanks, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it when you get there!

  9. Thanks for your review Dorothy. I’ve had this book for a while too, but haven’t gotten around to it- I will definitely try to get to it sooner after reading your comments. I too loved ‘Remains of the Day’.

    Sorry to hear about the Hobgoblin’s father. My thoughts are with you both.

  10. Thank you, Jess, for your kind words.

  11. LK

    Forgive me, I didn’t hear about Hob’s father. Please add my sympathy to everyone else’s wishes.

    Have you thought about the Joan Didion Year of Magical Thinking for Hob?

    Re Ishiguro: I think you are right about the theme of mortality. I also think it touches on the meaning of life — what constitutes a meaningful life?

  12. Thank you LK — and you’re right Didion’s book would be a good one.

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