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In which Netty discovers that, actually, it’s quite easy to let go …

April 17, 2011

Spoilers. Not much fun, really, are they? I mean, why would anyone bother to watch a film such as The Crying Game (she is actually a he), The Sixth Sense (the shrink is actually a ghost) or The Usual Suspects (Verbal Kint is actually Keyser Soze) if you already knew the plot twist that makes them worth watching in the first place? (Come on, now, there are no real spoilers there – you already knew all that already. And if you didn’t, well, you’ve only got yourself to blame for hiding under a rock for the past 20 years … )

So, on a similar note, I went into reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go knowing the main characters were clones, bred to donate their organs until they “complete” (read, die). I wish I hadn’t known that, but then again, the book’s been around since 2005 and the movie version has just been released (more on that later). I ran screaming from the cinema with my hands over my ears, shouting “Nooooooo!!!” at the top of my lungs when the trailer first appeared a month or so ago, a month or so before I was due to read NLMG (actually, I didn’t – I just rolled my eyes and thought to myself, Well, there goes that surprise then … )

So, would it have made a difference to my opinion of this book had I gone in blissfully unawares? Well, no, not really. The book kicks off with an introduction from its narrator Kathy H., a 31-year-old “carer” for “donors”. So the reader knows from the get-go the basic lay of the land here, and there’s never any real surprises as the chapters unfold. Actually, I could see the plot twists coming pages beforehand, and I am always the one during the movie who has to lean over and whisper, Uh, what’s going on now?

So here’s my own spoiler, straight up, no beating around the busheroonie: this book is not very good. In my opinion, obviously – certainly not in those of others (it won a couple of awards after its release and was on the short list for a slew of others, including the Man Booker). This is the first book of Ishiguro’s that I have read, and I was most enthusiastic about its inclusion in this year’s Reading Challenge (“Perhaps,” I said to Andy, over a bottle of champagne and a plate of saganaki, “we should have read The Remains Of The Day instead.” I think Andy’s reply was something along the lines of, well, he’d already read it and he thought I would have liked that one even less.) But, like David Malouf’s Johnno (see Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2010, December archive) – which also left me distinctly underwhelmed – this is not exactly going to see me banging down Dymocks’ door any time soon in order to get my hands on the rest of Ishiguro’s output.

So back to the book, which is divided into three parts. Kathy, who is about to finish up her career as a carer – and, hence, begin to make her own donations – is looking back on her short life and remembering her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy. The three were students at Hailsham, an English boarding school for clones (who are never referred to thus in the text), overseen by guardians who put special emphasis on their pupils’ creative skills. Kathy forms a special bond with Tommy, a loner who is bullied by his peers for his temper tantrums, but her best friend Ruth, an outwardly confident, extroverted girl, is the one who starts a relationship with him that lasts the duration of their time at the school.

After Hailsham, the trio makes the transition to the Cottages, where Ruth becomes enamoured with the other, older students (the “veterans”), which often puts her at odds with both Kathy and Tommy. Meanwhile, Kathy – increasingly bothered by her burgeoning sexuality – drifts into a series of one-night stands with other students. Then Rodney and Chrissie, a couple whom Ruth particularly reveres, report  that they believe they have seen Ruth’s “possible” – the human on which Ruth, as a clone, had been modelled – on a recent outing to Norfolk. Ruth, Tommy and Kathy, along with Rodney and Chrissie, make a pivotal return trip to the seaside town to track down the possible; meanwhile discussions intensify about rumours that if clone couples can apply for a three or four-year deferral from giving donations if they can prove they are “really” in love. Later, back at the Cottages, Ruth tells Kathy that should she and Tommy ever split up, that she shouldn’t expect to ever have a relationship with him – which triggers Kathy’s decision to leave and start her career as a carer. And she loses touch with both Ruth and Tommy.

Several years later, a chance encounter with ex-Hailsham student Laura, and the revelation that Ruth’s initial donation has not gone well (with donors typically “completing” on their third or fourth donations), prompts Kathy to seek out Ruth, renew their friendship and become Ruth’s carer.  Then, at Ruth’s urging, the pair decide to take an outing to see a boat stranded in marshland, which just happens to be located near the centre where Tommy is a donor, triggering a reunion between the trio – and a revelation from Ruth that resets the course of the rest of the novel. None of which came as any surprise, even to yours truly.

So, why didn’t I like Never Let Me Go? Well, as Andy said in his blog, the narrator’s incessant, infernal, unnecessary and completely distracting to-ing and fro-ing between the past and present just about drove me to hurling the book across the room in a fit of rage more times than I can count. I thought the characterisation was clunky. I had little sympathy for, or empathy with, any of the characters – especially Ruth, although it’s hardly Ishiguro’s fault that every time I was reading about her, I was seeing Keira Knightley (an actress I particularly dislike, who plays Ruth in the movie version) in my head.

However, I have to admit that since I saw the movie (about a week after I finished the book), my attitude towards the text has softened somewhat. It isn’t a great movie by any means, and it takes certain, typical liberties with its written counterpart (the author was also an executive producer, so these were obviously taken with his blessing). But it hangs together pretty well plot-wise, it is beautifully shot, the scenery is gorgeous, and Carey Mulligan (Kathy) and Andrew Garfield (Tommy) bring a warmth and humanity (no pun intended) to their characters that I felt the text lacked. (Oh, and if you’ve got a thing for strawberry blonds, as I do, you’ll be well pleased with the brief appearance of Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Rodney.)

A word of warning, however, to anyone in a book group who thinks they can skip the written word in favour of the film (a la George Constanza in the Seinfeld episode The Couch) – you can’t. They’re two different entities and, like George, you’ll be caught out. Anyway, the two feed into each other. I mean, I saw the movie because I’d read the book; if I’d seen the movie first, I would still have wanted to have read the book. But either way, at the end of the day, I’d still be disappointed in the book. But them’s the breaks …

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