I have a mild aversion to literary fantasy. I rarely read fantasy novels; I’ve never had the slightest interest in reading George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known by the TV version, Game of Thrones, although I did try to read Lord of the Rings when I was way too young, but I found myself acknowledging the genre, and roping it in support of my argument when a dinner guest, on hearing that I had written a novel on the sex life of a single mum, said, “So, do you know any single mums?” “I’m not writing a documentary,” I said, “I’m writing fiction.” She looked at me as if I’d said the world was flat. I continued, “Well, I’m glad you weren’t dishing out literary advice to Tolkien or George Martin otherwise we’d be without Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones.” Zombies, aliens, vampires, fairy god-mothers, elves, and talking rats and rabbits also sprang to mind, but she moved to the other end of the table before I could bring them in to bat.
When the British writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature I scoured my bookshelf and found Never Let me Go (2005). I didn’t know anything about it, and all that I knew previously about Ishiguro, was that he had won the Man-Booker Prize for Remains of the Day, was born in Japan, and that his family had moved to London when he was a child.
Page one begins, “My name is Kathy H.” I had just read Sebastian Barry’s memorable The Secret Scripture, a male writer writing in the first person as a woman, so my pre-established prejudice against such literary cross-dressing had been severely weakened, to a point of not caring very much. However, halfway down the page there is this:
“My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’ even before fourth donation.”
The words “donors” and “fourth donation” sent a worry-jolt to my brain and I suspected that the created universe in which this story would unfold was not the one that I live in, but I felt safe from dragons or talking trees, so I continued reading.
It’s important to tell you that I was hooked very quickly but the book also made me think more about why I don’t read novels from the fantasy genre, as I now thought this book belonged to. It’s a general feeling of aversion for the literary ‘cop out’. If the universe of the novel has dragons flying through the air, i.e., the universe of the novel is not your universe, then it seems to me that anything is possible. A plot complication of any magnitude could be sorted out by any deus ex machina the writer deems necessary. This feeling isn’t strong, but with so much to read in the genres I prefer, the urge to delve into others doesn’t really come up. Genres are only important for publishers, booksellers, and readers; I acknowledge them as a reader, but writers, and especially Ishiguro, don’t pay much heed to them. His Remains of the Day, a very English tale of love and painful reticence is in the most English of settings: below stairs in a manor house; while his most recent novel, The Buried Giant is a true fantasy novel set in post-Arthurian Briton.
Kathy H is a thirty-something woman remembering her education at a boarding school, Hailsham, and her friends, Ruth and Tommy. The school is recognisably British but with weird and worrying rules, attitudes, and characters. It becomes clear, through mis-matched memories, remembered inconsistencies, and briefly explained circumstances that the world of the novel is not the world of the reader; and the fate of the students is mapped out, rigid, and dystopian.
The almost lazy diary-style of remembrance, “It was just like the time when…”, “… looking back now…”,”I don’t know about you, but where we were…”, “… and that reminded me of Chrissie, who …”, “…the way I remember it is…”, “It’s funny now recalling the way it was at the beginning…”, “… and that’s when we had that talk I told you about …”, gets a little repetitive, and the incidents and events she remembers has about as much dramatic content as “sharpening a pencil”, as one critic joked; but these remembrances of seemingly minor happenings do create something in the reader similar to the experience of the narrator; no mean feat: a jumble-book of seemingly indistinct and trivial memories flavoured with asides and happenstance of their lives that coalesce eventually into a sprawling picture of unease, and controlled morality and personal destiny. You begin to like these young people; wonder how much and what they know about themselves and their circumstances; and what is this curious feeling of dread you find creeping over you like a blanket? Yes, the remembrances may be small but the stakes are incredibly high and when Kathy H and her peers discover the true meaning of their existence … no, no spoilers here; you’ll have to read it yourself to understand the frightful truth.
Ishiguro’s chosen narrative style is conversational, prosaic even, how a good friend may write a letter (remember writing letters?) telling you what they did on the weekend. No literary language or erudite psychological musings, just memories of a middle-class woman about her upbringing; oh, and allowing un-spoken assumptions that the reader takes in, by osmosis, that creates, deep-down at first, this creeping disquiet.
It’s not a book you can easily forget. It is one of the most unusual and emotionally disturbing books I have ever read. I admire Ishiguro’s control over what he writes; how his skill is hidden and you only marvel at it when the story is over, and then you understand that what you feel is a direct, and deliberate, result of it.
You can find the book, in various formats, here.
The movie version (2010) stars Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Charlotte Rampling; adapted by Alex Garland, and directed by Mark Romanek.
Oh, and BTW, here is a piece of advice from Kazuo Ishiguro, “Write what you know is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. I wish I’d known about this quote as more ammunition for my brief literary discussion with above dinner guest.