Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What did the book club think of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go? (If you want to avoid spoilage, don't read this blog and also refrigerate leftovers)

For the second time in three years, we decided to read a book from the Nobel Prize for Literature winner. I still feel bad that we didn't read a Patrick Modiano novel, and perhaps that regret let me to pick Voices from Chernobyl the next year. I'm a little weirded out that according to Ingram, there's no paperback of that book currently available. Seems unlikely. That said, I couldn't bring myself to pick something from Bob Dylan, and that led us to Kazuo Ishiguro. Being that I already read The Remains of the Day, and my thought was that the group had also probably read it, we picked Never Let Me Go. 

It turns out that this novel is, in the wake of the Nobel Prize, selling at a faster clip than Remains. Though it was also the subject of a film treatment, to my knowledge, the film was not a huge success.  Sometimes films curtail book sales, but it seems like an unsuccessful film might be better long-term for a book than a successful one. I spoke to my sales rep Jason about this, and he said that the book is a popular book for high school course adoption.

Never Let Me Go is a first-person narrative of Kathy, who was sent, at a young age, to a boarding school called Hailsham. I thought everyone knew the secret of the book, but go figure, more than half the folks in our In-Store Lit Group did not know what was happening until they realized that Hailsham was a very special boarding school indeed. C. said "What a sweet little book this is!" until she realized it wasn't a sweet book after all. That's the second time we've pulled that trick on her, following Edna O'Brien's switcheroo in The Little Red Chairs. 

Kathy's friends are Ruth and Tommy. It's a classic love triangle. Kathy is sort of in love with Tommy, who is partnered with Ruth. Ruth is a manipulator and convinces Kathy that even if she and Tommy broke up, Tommy would never want her. The story moves through their time at Hailsham, and then for a period after school, before they begin their vocation as carers.

Spoilers below.

The secret is that the three of them are clones who are being raised for their parts. After their education, they make their use in society as carers, helping donors after their operations. At one point a carer turns into a donor. Notice apparently comes by mail. When a donor has given their last donation, they've completed, which struck us as morbid and banal at the same time.

Apparently Hailsham is an experiment, where the students are raised humanely, educated, and encouraged to be creative. They even learn how to safely have sex. Because they are clones, they don't have to worry about pregnancy. The other schools (or maybe they aren't even schools)  are not as nice as Hailsham, but how they are bad are left to our imagination. Several of us were reminded of humanely raised animals vs factory farms.

For some reason, the best of their art projects are taken away for use in a gallery. For what? We're never quite sure, but this is definitely part of the experiment. When Kathy and Tommy locate two of the school officials after it closes, one gets the feeling was the art was to prove a point - but whether the ends was to raise clones humanely or to end clone farming altogether is left for us to decide.

Let's get to the negatives first. N. was one of those people for whom the book was a reach. Sometimes she comes around, but in this case, she stopped reading, and even our enlightening conversation didn't make her want to return to the book. D. is a self-proclaimed hater. He really didn't have much to say, except that he thought the book was juvenile. L1. liked it, but wondered if it was YA. (See comment above that a lot of high schools read it). We are not in agreement here; this was just one - well, two - opinions. J2. enjoyed reading it but was depressed by the end.

G. was in the positive camp. A little confused at the beginning, but hooked by the end. L2 went from hate, but then gave it an eight (out of ten). J2. really liked it. And S. told us this was the third time she read it. I'm a fan as well. I found it hypnotic. I can also see how there was an enthusiasm to turn this into a film and also can see how hard this would be to do. Like Remains of the Day, it could work as a Merchant-Ivory kind of thing but I'm sure there was a temptation to play up the SF elements.

There were questions. What exactly were they donating that they good go through four operations? This led to a discussion of kidney donor waiting lists. We also wondered why they didn't escape. This was not an apocalyptic book with futuristic surveillance. After all, they did love the film, The Great Escape. Had the escape been breeded out of them? Or were they, like the butler in The Remains of the Day, aware of their place in life, no matter what they might have wanted, and honor-bound to follow through?

We also had an interesting discussion of speculative vs. science fiction. The former is used as a literary crossover term and is more encompassing. But there's also this theory that speculative books set up a futuristic or alternate history presence but don't then follow through on the detailed world building and specifically the scientific details that sf fans crave. I do not crave the details, but I was interested in a world that had cloning but still had not gone beyond cassette tapes.

Speaking of which, several folks wondered if the song that captivates Kathy, Never Let Me Go, and its singer, Judy Bridgewater, was real. The answer is no, but they did create a song for the film, which you can listen to here.

Our take: don't expect a uniform response to Ishiguro's novel, but the discussion was lively and even the few folks who didn't like the book enjoyed talking about it. Lots of philosophical musing.

Upcoming In-Store Lit Group discussions:

Monday, February 5, 7 pm: The Anatomy of Dreams, by Chloe Benjamin

Monday, March 5, 7 pm: The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck.

No comments: