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.