Friday, May 13, 2011

Thinking About the Rubbish

I am an avid reader. Although I prefer nonfiction, I do pick up a few fictional reads. Usually, they are escapist genre pieces, fun but of little aesthetic heft. In particular, I am a fan of Science Fiction novels. The main reason is that these novels can be read for mere thrills, but the better works provide something worthy of thought in addition to the engaging plot.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is technically a SF novel, but I'd classify it a mainstream fiction. Here's my review:

"What's the rhubarb patch got to do with any of this?"

This is a story about sacrifice and acceptance told through the narrative of Kathy and developed through her interactions with her peers, Ruth and Tommy. The novel is divided into three parts: school days, coming of age, and destiny. The novel's premise is a standard of Science Fiction, but I will not explicitly discuss it because that would be a bit of a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the main characters are revealed as being "special" early on in the novel, although extremely sheltered from external society. As the novel progresses, the reason for their "specialness" and the predetermined sacrifice that it entails becomes clear.

We begin the story in the mid-1990s in England, Kathy is a "carer" for "special" patients. She comes from a privileged educational background, an elite institution called Hailsham. Some of her patients enjoy hearing tales about Hailsham and this leads her into reflections about her childhood school days. In these reflections we meet Ruth, her best friend, and Tommy, an emotional boy with whom Kathy shares a special rapport.

From this introductory point, we are presented with two stands of conflict/resolution. First, there is the personal challenge; the three main characters are engaged in a triangular relationship in which Kathy is the "odd man out". How is that to be resolved? Second, from their sheltered existence at Hailsham, the main characters slowly become aware of their purpose in life and the value that society places upon them as sentient beings. Having been presented with such a destiny, what actions can the main characters take to affirm their value and/or control their fate?

Structurally, the first section lays out the basic premise and evidence, both pro and con, for the resolutions of these conflicts. The second part tackles the person challenge of the triangular relationship. The third part deals with destiny and the existential challenge. There is certainly interplay between the three sections, especially in the ongoing dialectic of "value".

What is "rubbish" and what is "quality"? These are central themes underlying the conflicts. The answers to these questions determines the resolution. For instance, as school kids, they have "collections" of art and poetry that their peers at Hailsham created. However, upon leaving Hailsham, the external society may not hold high opinion of such "collections". So, in light of this new vantage point, does one see the "collection" as "rubbish" or "quality"?

"Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading."

The prose is exquisite. The characters are accessible and feel authentic. The settings are rich and evocative, especially Hailsham. The plot is well structured and compelling, which is only apparent upon contemplation afterwards. On a cursory read this novel seems to fall into the "Literature without Plot" category, but that's mistaking "action" for "conflict and resolution". Kathy makes many significant choices throughout the novel, which have lasting ramifications on her destiny.

In conclusion, I recommend this book. The quality of the writing makes for an easy read, but the quality of the concept makes for a great deal of thought. If you're looking for a light read, then this isn't for you. If you're interested in thought-stimulating fiction, you've found a winner

Here's a link to Kazuo Ishiguro's Wikipedia page.


(BTW, This post should be post #103, but the "Great Blogger Failure" screwed up the order of my posts. Oh well. . .)

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