Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Excerpt from Never Let Me Go – by Kazuo Ishiguro
I read Never Let Me Go this year – posted about it here. I hesitate to even say anything about it, for fear of giving stuff away. It is the kind of book that is dependent on the reader NOT knowing anything going in. I went into it pure. I had somehow managed to avoid all spoilers – not even a HINT of anything made it to my ears (which is kind of extraordinary, considering how much I read book reviews, etc.) But I read one post about Never let Me Go in June (I link to it above) – went out, bought the book, and read it immediately. I was that curious about it. I am very glad I knew nothing, I didn’t know the secret of the book, I didn’t know the plot even! It’s a terrible story, it really made me sick – and then suddenly, with a whoosh, on the last page – I found myself weeping. But up until that point, I was frozen in horror and disgust. It’s the strangest sensation, reading that book – I know I’m not writing about it very well, but oh well. You can’t win them all. Ishiguro, again, amazes me with his talent. He launches into the story, it’s a first-person narration – our narrator is a woman named Kathy, and she’s looking back on her childhood at a boarding school. All very normal and British. But she uses certain words in a context that makes me confused. I don’t know what she means. What does she mean, she’s a “carer”? That’s in the first sentence. She doesn’t bother to explain it to us, not for a long while – because she assumes we know. But there are other words, too. Not sci-fi outer space words – but words that you think you know what they mean, but they just sound ODD in her context. You start to piece together the world she inhabits. And piece by piece, the picture becomes clearer and clearer. By the end you’re like: Okay, thanks, never want to live THERE, thank you very much. You’re haunted by the book. It stays with you for a couple of days after you put it down.
I really don’t want to say much more if you haven’t read it. All I can do is say it was one of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last couple of years. It made me think, it made me question some of my unexamined beliefs, it made me scared, it made me ponder some big issues – but it also just reverberated around me with its implications. It’s HORRIBLE. A great great read – I highly recommend it.
Ishiguro unfolds his world slowly. Kathy is not an introspective narrator. She does seem to obsess about emotional accuracy – to a point where you want to go, “Okay, Kathy, we get it, we get it.” But that’s part of the point. Kathy goes on and on about her high school years, her friends, her teachers, her classes, the intricacies of the social world at school, etc … and yet somehow you get the sense that we do not know the whole story, that there is an entire world just around the corner, one where all the rules are clear … why isn’t Kathy talking about THAT world? She assumes we know about it. She babbles on about her friends … and it made me so uneasy to read at first, because I was frightened of what I did not know. I knew I wasn’t being told the whole story, I knew there were certain things that seemed off: is it an orphanage? A mental hospital? Where are the parents? Are they physically deformed children? Are they dwarves? Or are they actually NOT children – but little old people in a nursing home? Anything seemed possible. We never hear what anybody else looks like, we never get context like that. We also know that the children are brought up in a state of secrecy and mystery: information is withheld from them, until they can handle it. And because they have (seemingly) no contact with the outside world, the children do not question the rules, or the way things are. The book doesn’t seem to take place in the far future, although it feels … off … and Ishiguro makes a point of telling us the year on the first page: England, late 1990s. Which just gives a chill, when you realize what the story really IS.
One of Kathy’s friends in school is a boy named Tommy. It seems that Tommy has guessed what the deal is, long before the rest do. And he rages. He has temper tantrums. He is uncontrollable. There was a teacher at the school, too, who apparently did not agree with keeping information from the children – although the children are prepared for their roles in life from a very early age – but more than that – she thought that making the children busy busy busy with schoolwork and artwork was a disservice to them. Their preparations should have been much deeper, she thought. The teacher, naturally, did not last long at the school. She rocked the boat.
This excerpt is from early on in the book. Kathy and Tommy meet up by the pond at the school, Tommy has something he wants to tell her. The excerpt shows the oddness of the world: like, of course it would be good if children were creative … but why does this school make such a huge deal out of it? What is going on here?? Kathy doesn’t seem to question it, but Tommy does.
Comparing this book to Remains of the Day just leaves me in awe at Ishiguro’s breadth.
Excerpt from Never Let Me Go – by Kazuo Ishiguro
Miss Lucy was the most sporting of the guardians at Hailsham, though you might not have guessed it from her appearance. She had a squat, almost bulldoggy figure, and her odd black hair, when it grew, grew upwards so it never covered her ears or chunky neck. But she was really strong and fit, and even when we were older, most of us – even the boys – couldn’t keep up with her on a fields run. She was superb at hockey, and could even hold her own with the Senior boys on the football pitch. I remember watching once when James B. tried to trip her as she went past him with the ball, and he was the one sent flying instead. When we’d been in the Juniors, she’d never been someone like Miss Geraldine who you turned to when you were upset. In fact, she didn’t tend to speak much to us when we were younger. It was only in the Seniors, really, we’d started to appreciate her brisk style.
“You were saying something,” I said to Tommy. “Somethiing about Miss Lucy telling you it was all right not to be creative.”
“She did say something like that. She said I shouldn’t worry. Not mind what other people were saying. A couple of months ago. Maybe longer.”
Over at the house, a few Juniors had stopped at one of the upstairs windows and were watching us. But I now crouched down in front of Tommy, no longer pretending anything.
“Tommy, that’s a funny thing for her to say. Are you sure you got it right?”
“Of course I got it right.” His voice lowered suddenly. “She didn’t just say it once. We were in her room and she gave me a whole talk about it.”
When she’d first asked him to come to her study after Art Appreciation, Tommy explained, he’d expected yet another lecture about how he should try harder – the sort of thing he’d had already from various guardians, including Miss Emily herself. But as they were walking from the house towards the Orangery – where the guardians had their living quarters – Tommy began to get an inkling this was something different. Then, once he was seated in Miss Lucy’s easy chair – she’d remained standing by the window – she asked him to tell her the whole story, as he saw it, of what had been happening to him. So Tommy had begun going through it all. But before he was even half way she’d suddenly broken in and started to talk herself. She’d known a lot of students, she’d said, who’d for a long time found it very difficult to be creative: painting, drawing, poetry, none of it going right for years. Then one day they’d turned a corner and blossomed. It was quite possible Tommy was one of these.
Tommy had heard all of this before, but there was something about Miss Lucy’s manner that made him keep listening hard.
“I could tell,” he told me, “she was leading up to something. Something different.”
Sure enough, she was soon saying things Tommy found difficult to follow. But she kept repeating it until eventually he began to understand. If Tommy had genuinely tried, she was saying, but he just couldn’t be very creative, then that was quite all right, he wasn’t to worry about it. It was wrong for anyone, whether they were students or guardians, to punish him for it, or put pressure on him in any way. It simply wasn’t his fault. And when Tommy had protested it was all very well Miss Lucy saying this, but everyone did think it was his fault, she’d given a sigh and looked out of her window. Then she’d said:
“It may not help you much. But just you remember this. There’s at least one person herre at Hailsham who believes otherwise. At least one person who believes you’re a very good student, as good as any she’s ever come across, never mind how creative you are.”
“She wasn’t having you on, was she?” I asked Tommy. “It wasn’t some clever way of telling you off?”
“It definitely wasn’t anything like that. Anyway …” For the first time he seemed worried about being overheard and glanced over his shoulder towards the house. The Juniors at the window had lost interest and gone; some girls from our years were walking towards the pavilion, but they were still a good way off. Tommy turned back to me and said almost in a whisper:
“Anyway, when she said all this, she was shaking.”
“What do you mean, shaking?”
“Shaking. With rage. I could see her. She was furious. But furious deep inside.”
“I wasn’t sure. Not at me anyway, that was the most important thing!” He gave a laugh, then became serious again. “I don’t know who she was angry with. But she was angry all right.”
I stood up again because my calves were aching. “It’s pretty weird, Tommy.”
“Funny thing is, this talk with her, it did help. Helped a lot. When you were saying earlier on, about how things seemed better for me now. Well, it’s because of that. Because afterwards, thinking about what she’d said, I realised she was right, that it wasn’t my fault. Okay, I hadn’t handled it well. But deep down, it wasn’t my fault. That’s what made the difference. And whenever I felt rocky about it, I’d catch sight of her talking about, or I’d be in one of her lessons, and she wouldn’t say anything about our talk, but I’d look at her, and she’d sometimes see me and give me a little nod. And that’s all I needed. You were asking earlier if something had happened. Well, that’s what happened. But Kath, listen, don’t breathe a word to anyone about this, right?”
I nodded, but asked: “Did she make you promise that?”
“No, no, she didn’t make me promise anything. But you’re not to breathe a word. You’ve got to really promise.”
“All right.” The girls heading for the pavilion had spotted me and were waving and calling. I waved back and said to Tommy, “I’d better go. We can talk more about it soon.”
But Tommy ignored this. “There’s something else,” he went on. “Something else she said I can’t quite figure out. I was going to ask you about it. She said we weren’t being taught enough, something like that.”
“Taught enough? You mean she thinks we should be studying even harder than we are?”
“No, I don’t think she meant that. What she was talking about was, you know, about us. What’s going to happen to us one day. Donations and all that.”
“But we have been taught about all that,” I said. “I wonder what she meant/ Does she think there are things we haven’t been told yet?”
Tommy thought for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t think she meant it like that. She just thinks we aren’t taught about it enough. Because she said she’d a good mind to talk to us about it herself.”
“About what exactly?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe I got it all wrong, Kath. I don’t know. Maybe she was meaning something else completely, something else to do with me not being creative. I don’t really understand it.”
Tommy was looking at me as though he expected me to come up with an answer. I went on thinking for a few seconds, then said:
“Tommy, think back carefully. You said she got angry …”
“Well, that’s what it looked like. She was quiet, but she was shaking.”
“All right, whatever. Let’s say she got angry. Was it when she got angry she started to say this othher stuff? About how we weren’t taught enough about donations and the rest of it?”
“I suppose so …”
“Now, Tommy, think. Why did she bring it up? She’s talking about you and you not creating. Then suddenly she starts up about this other stuff. What’s the link? Why did she bring up donations? What’s that got to do with you being creative?”
“I don’t know. There must have been some reason, I suppose. Maybe one thing reminded her of the other. Kath, you’re getting really worked up about this yourself now.”
I laughed, because he was right: I’d been frowning, completely lost in my thoughts. The fact was, my mind was going in various directions at once. And Tommy’s account of his talk with Miss Lucy had reminded me of something, perhaps a whole series of things, little incidents from the past to do with Miss Lucy that had puzzled me at the time.
“it’s just that …” I stopped and sighed. “I can’t quite put it right, not even to myself. But all this, what you’re saying, it sort of fits with a lot of other things that are puzzling. I keep thinking about all these things. Like why Madame comes and takes away our best pictures. What’s that for exactly?”
“It’s for the Gallery.”
“But what is her gallery? She keeps coming here and taking away our best work. She must have stacks of it by now. I asked Miss Geraldine once how long Madame’s been coming here, and she said for as long as Hailsham’s been here. What is this gallery? Why should she have a gallery of things done by us?”
“Maybe she sells them. Outside, out there, they sell everything.”
I shook my head. “That can’t be it. It’s got something to do with what Miss Lucy said to you. About us, about how one day we’ll start giving donations. I don’t know why, but I’ve had this feeling for some time now, that it’s all linked in, though I can’t figure out how. I’ll have to go now, Tommy. Let’s not tell anything yet, about what we’ve been saying.”
“No. And don’t tell anyone about Miss Lucy.”
“But will you tell me if she says anything else to you like that?”
Tommy nodded, then glanced around him again. “Like you say, you’d better go, Kath. Someone’s going to hear us soon.”