My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I originally started this novel awhile back, and gave up about a third of the way in because I wasn’t enjoying it. However, I restarted it once more on the recommendation of a friend.
My overall experience of the novel was one of suffocation, on which I will say more in a minute; and while I appreciated various aspects of it, I became aware that some of its attributes–namely, many of those for which it has rightly accrued praise–were ones which didn’t appeal to me as a reader. There’s not a lot to do about that, nor is that Ishiguro’s fault. Such preferences are subjective and insurmountable.
Let’s start from a place that makes sense to unpick. Rereading the novel, I found the set up as disorienting the second time round as I had the first. The opening chapters spend a lot of time moving from one small life event to the next, usually told outside of chronological order. Ishiguro likes, at least with this book (I’ve not read others), to begin or end each scene by intimating significance. ‘I remember this event, and it was significant… [story section]’, or ‘Let me tell you about this event… [story section]… and you see now why that was significant although it didn’t seem so at the time.’ The meat of the narrative focuses heavily on the minutiae of the characters’ lives, their intricate relationships and day to day, and this is told in a back-and-forth arc which moves across the years, with occasional references to the present day.
Perplexity I don’t mind, but NLMG verged into shamelessly coy in places. It felt as if the narrator was determined to obfuscate events for as long as possible. I suppose that’s the aim of authors in many novels, but in this particular case I wanted a clearer understanding of what was driving these kids, and their motivations. This style of narration does, to a large extent, mirror the way in which the children of Hailsham were educated: subtly, everything obfuscated, pieces dropped in here and there; nonetheless my preference would be for slightly more context. However, I felt the way in which revelations were made also lessened their dramatic impact significantly, much as they were for the students—an artistic echo at the expense of tension.
Even once the purpose behind Hailsham gradually came to light, the logistics frustrated me. Why let them be carers? It seems a terrible idea to let donors take that role; surely it’ll just upset them to see how they’ll end up. Why raise humans at such cost and with such difficulty to do what animals could more easily offer? We’re closer to breeding pigs for organs than we are clones. I commented recently to a friend that you cannot write clones seriously in science fiction these days; while this is certainly a serious novel about clones, I won’t be eating my hat in its entirety, either, because NLMG suffers from the same suspension of disbelief problems which often plague this concept. (Just about the only setting in which I’d swallow clones without choking is far-futuristic transhumanist novels.) It would, imo, make more sense to just breed normal people for harvesting, but then of course there would not be any discussion over whether or not clones have souls (which, btw, seemed to me a foregone conclusion—I personally needed more convincing that anyone could think otherwise, and was indifferent to that particular revelation.)
I’d have liked to see more interaction with non-clones; I would have thought that living among real people, without some kind of stigma or marking, meant that people would be much more likely to side with the children, and to see them as human. Setting them apart as different is surely a necessity for maintaining the system. Instead, they fit more or less into human society, if somewhat on the fringes.
That sense of suffocation I mentioned at the start, came from the same carefully-constructed claustrophobia, which refused to discuss said logistics, and the tiny, fake world to which the characters were confined for long periods. Kathy’s friends exasperated me to no end; with the exception of Tommy they were almost uniformly false, living in strange fantasy worlds of their own concoctions. Ruth I found particularly irritating, and didn’t see what she offered to Kathy, especially since Kathy herself seemed far more grounded than the rest. Perhaps Kathy enjoyed the lies because she couldn’t tell them herself, I don’t know. Either way, there was little sense of the world outside their school, their cottages, their carer dormitories; the characters felt stacked atop each other, oppressively so much of the time. Their existence was almost wholly interior, yet they spent huge swathes of time avoiding internal reflection.
Finally, I was surprised that Kathy et al made no attempts to leave. Not necessarily from Hailsham, which was a closed environment (and certainly the guardians seemed concerned this would happen, hence security), but later on in the Cottages, and especially as carers. Kathy could drive, was often (one presumes) gone for hours at a time for her job. Why not runaway, flee, go somewhere else? One could concoct simple reasons for this without authorial prompt… although personally I prefer to have some authorial input into how the world works on a point I see as plot relevant… but my bigger beef was Kathy’s lack of reflection on it. Did it simply not occur to her to try and leave? She didn’t think of asking for a deferral—that being entirely Ruth’s idea—and never seemed to consider in any capacity the idea of leaving. That she should treat her own situation with such alarming resignation stretched belief for me.
But on reflection, perhaps that was part of Ishiguro’s point—that most of us don’t examine as closely as we should the inertia present in our own lives. We do, as a species, seem willing to settle for unpleasant circumstances, undeserved fates, wholly avoidable heartache and hardship. CS Lewis once wrote that we are like children making mud pies in a slum, unwilling to accept a holiday by the sea because we cannot fathom an existence better than what we have, and so have learned to be content with misery. Perhaps the same principle could be applied here (though I’d argue it’s still somewhat extreme).
The novel is billed as an examination of friendship through the years (among other things), but to me the stand-out issues and themes centred on what the characters were willing to live with, accept, and refuse to change. In relation to my earlier comment that Kathy’s friends seemed to exist in their own fantasy universe, it could also be argued that this is not dissimilar to how ordinary people live. While I may not have enjoyed as much as most people seem to, it certainly inspired a reasonable amount of speculation, as evidenced by this unusually long review.