Friday 17 November 2017

Never Let Me Go

(November 2017)

Gyah. What a singularly frustrating book. What, to be more specific, a singularly frustrating narrator.

Kathy, who is both narrator and protagonist, is almost willfully naïve and incurious throughout the entire novel. I spent the longest time thinking this was deliberate on her part, that she was another one of Ishiguro’s unreliable narrators keeping back her darkest secret until a big reveal just before the very end reveals their self-inflicted sense of guilt. And while I suppose she is, in a way, the degree to which she also seems to be (un)affected by that reveal does make you question exactly how much of that reticence is meant to be read as intentional. How much is she (as I first supposed) deliberately blinding herself (and so us) to the horrors of the world around her? Or, how much is she (as I came to suspect) just a bit dumb?

How much, to follow that train of thought, is that ignorance down to how she’s been raised? It’s the nature versus nurture question, as ever. She’s a thirty-one-year-old woman writing largely about her mid-to-late teens, most notably about the hyper-sensitivity to nuance that develops between friendship groups at that age—when it feels like your friends are the whole world, any minor slight or dismissal takes on almost literal world-shattering proportions. In many ways she hasn’t progressed since then, either emotionally or intellectually: At one point late in the book she writes about her adult sex life, claiming to feel a subtle postcoital tension with her partner “…even after we'd done it really well…” What kind of adult talks about "doing" sex “well”? Her constant, sledgehammer-subtle foreshadowing of every incident relates feels like the lazy signposting of an academic essay transposed to the diary of a teenage girl—it’s only a matter of register which separates, “Well, anyway, this era of putting Harry off lasted maybe a couple of weeks, and then came Ruth's request,” followed by a portentous section break, from, “…to which discussion now turns.” Its effect here is to feel like a poor, or at least inexperienced, writer’s attempts to ramp up the tension.

As my dad used to like to say about Les Dawson’s piano skills, however, “It takes a great player to play that badly.” All of this is undoubtedly deliberate on Ishiguro’s part. Not the frustration, perhaps, but definitely the sense of the narrator stranded in an awkward stage of arrested development. The frustration probably says more about me than the book, but I got to within forty pages of the end and had to put it down for a while before finishing it off, so obvious was the disappointment Kathy and Tommy were setting themselves up for, and so painful was the prospect of experiencing it with them. Expert emotional manipulation right there—you’ll note that while I’ve repeatedly said the book was frustrating, I never said it was bad. Kathy might be a clumsy and incurious writer, but her creator most definitely isn’t.

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