Quite a few book reviews coming this week, so long as I can motivate myself to do it… I try and be that little bit more lucid when talking about a book. Which doesn’t always go that well… Speaking of not going well, I’ve had a few recent reads which haven’t quite been up to scratch. Not, ahem, below scratch, but nothing getting me too excited at the moment. Thought I’d share my thoughts on one or two of them nonetheless, mixed in this week with some books I’ve really liked, but somehow not managed to get around to writing about yet. Look out for reviews of two non-fiction titles (gasp!)
First off is a book group choice: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I hadn’t read anything by Ishiguro before, though of course was aware of him, and always had him down as someone I’d investigate at some point. When I mentioned that I was reading Never Let Me Go to people, the response was always extreme. But not always to the same side. People assured me that I’d either love the book to the extent that I’d have the cover tattooed across my chest; others told me I’d loathe it so much that I’d send Ishiguro lengthy hate letters, and firebomb his kitchen.
So I was rather surprised when the main effect was… apathy. I was just completely underwhelmed.
For those who don’t know the premise of the book, we open with Kathy H telling us about her life as a carer. She looks after other people in the process of making ‘donations’ – they make up to four of these, then they ‘complete’. It’s never specified what the donations are, but it’s obvious pretty early on that it’s parts of their bodies. After setting the scene there, Kathy reminisces about her school life at Hailsham; the various friends and exploits she had; the school’s emphasis on art creation; the Sales where they bought much-prized tat. And so forth.
In terms of plotting, Ishiguro can be quite subtle. (I don’t want to give away everything in Never Let Me Go, so I’ll try to write about it without revealing central things…) But, once he unveils the ‘secret’ of the book (about two-thirds of the way through) I was left thinking ‘so what?’ So much mystery had been built up, so much supposed suspense, that the answer deflated the book. Like the school children, who discover the secret when we do in the narrative, we have been ‘told and not told’. The information is always there, but in such a way as it doesn’t sink home.
The inclusion of subtle little details can be quite clever – I liked the early emphatic anti-smoking teaching to the kids, and how that later makes sense – but there must be a better way to build up tension than to end paragraphs with ‘But that was nothing compared to what happened at the lake’, or ‘And that was the day that Ruth did what she did’, before going onto something different. I was reminded, I’m sorry to say, of the Goosebumps books. Did anybody read them? A cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, which likely as not would turn out to be nothing.
My biggest disappointment, however, was the writing style. Though I’ve never read Ishiguro before, I always had the idea that he was a great prose stylist. The writing in Never Let Me Go is just so bland. Yes, it’s in the form of a first person narrative from a youngish, not-overly-bright woman, so perhaps it’s appropriate, but it was just so… bland. I know I should support that with quotation, but that’s the problem: it’s all This Happened then That Happened, I Was Happy, I Was Sad. Nothing significant to quote. I don’t know how he’s got this reputation as a great prose writer… I wondered if his other books were better in that respect, but someone told me that they were all quite similarly written.
One other small quibble… I thought the title was rubbish. It refers to a song which Kathy likes to listen to, yes, but it doesn’t evoke the book at all. Gives completely the wrong impression.
Much of the discussion at book group was over the fact that none of the children resist their fate, nor try to escape it. And any criticism of the book was considered to be a nod towards this argument… well, that part didn’t bother me at all. I thought making them passive was a good idea. My problems were with style – and the fact that I finished the book without it really seeming to have begun.
This has been a pretty negative review, but that’s mostly through disappointment. I was hoping to love Ishiguro, and I couldn’t. The idea was interesting, it could have been developed into a great book. Never Let Me Go isn’t dreadful, but it was just so pointless and average. An evening of book group couldn’t persuade me otherwise, but if anyone *does* want to be counsel for the defence?
One final point… doesn’t the cover remind you of one of the covers for Helen Garner’s The Spare Room?