Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (the movie)

The film begins so – “The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.”
Never Let Me Go is set in this alternate reality. It follows the lives of three children,
Kathy, Ruth and Tommy who grow up together in a typical English boarding school. Except, Hailsham is not an ordinary school. The children are “duplicates” or clones whose lives have a special purpose – to make organ donations, a fate clear to the viewer from the start, but not to them. A coming-of-age journey like no other, Never Let Me Go is a search for identity, hope, a tale of friendship and unrequited love, as Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow up to face what the world has in store for them. 
Two years ago, I wrote a rant-review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the book (read more about the plot there.) The movie, directed by Mark Romanek (who unsurprisingly I had never heard of), is also a beauty. Like the book, it made me scared and weepy. Ishiguro writes a blend of Japanese and English styles, somehow both melancholy and impassive. This book had some failings, an odd arrangement of plot here, a convenient tying off of loose threads there – but its powerful composition made me let them go. And this is a rare adaptation that so closely follows the story while doing justice to the sentiment.

Never Let Me Go has a tone of helpless silence that is most striking. No reader or viewer is new to dystopian fiction – from Hunger Games to 1984, there has been a lot in this genre. Doesn’t the word dystopia conjure dreadful provocative images in your mind, the kind filled with torture chambers and riots? Never Let Me Go is not that. It is much closer to home.
Do not watch the movie expecting a story about three friends teaming up against circumstance, to overthrow an awful authority, if only to end up squashed by the system. Ishiguro and Romanek have penned a far likelier version of the future for the vast majority of us. It is a world where you accept what is thrown your way, because that’s what most of us would do. The quiet resignation in Kathy’s voice makes the movie most haunting. 
And what makes the story most effective, irrespective of medium, is this – you never meet the bad-guy. The normal people, who are not duplicates and organ donors, are the teachers at Hailsham school. And they never outright mistreat the children, they do nothing that doesn’t happen in schools now, nothing you want to shout at and protest against. You see the injustice in the little things, the rundown cottages the kids move to after school, the deliverymen who can’t quite meet their eyes. The sad truth of the story is it makes you empathize with both sides of the coin – the main characters, who are little more than experiments created to serve others, and the rest of the world that reaps the benefits of invention, guiltless, so long as they don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. 
The cast is great, just like I had pictured them. There should be a word for finding out the book adaptation you really want to watch stars Keira Knightley. In this movie, unlike her others, I actually liked her in the role of sassy, headstrong Ruth. The book gets its title from a fictional song that little Kathy dances to, imagining herself an impossible future. The scene in the movie, somewhat different, is still touching, and the young actress who plays Kathy conveys a multitude of emotions through her little swaying dance. She brings this light to the first half of the film that is just charming. Her bond with Tommy is precious. And she looks uncannily like Carey Mulligan, who plays grown-up Kathy. 
The movie appears inescapably English. Ishiguro uses rain as a frequent plot device, most key conversations happen because the characters are stuck somewhere while it’s pouring outside. True to the narrative, the film has this drab rainy appearance that makes it even gloomier. The story is brimming with ideas and Ishiguro lets them brim over inside you, leaving a hundred questions unanswered. The movie could have been more dramatic, graphic, but it maintains Ishiguro’s subtlety. Don’t watch the movie with a closed mind and expect to be taken by the hand and led through an experience. Open your mind, welcome in the discreet flavourless terror and your imagination should suffice to drive you crazy.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. Retreating into the past, she finds herself reliving one particular hot summer in Nagasaki, when she and her friends struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. But then as she recalls her strange friendship with Sachiko — a wealthy woman reduced to vagrancy — the memories take on a disturbing cast.

I had a rather precarious feeling, perched on the edge of
that mountain looking out over such a view; a long way down below us, we could
see the harbour looking like a dense piece of machinery left in the water.
Across the harbour, on the opposite bank, rose the series of hills that led
into Nagasaki. The land at the foot of the hills was busy with houses and
buildings. Far over to our right, the harbour opened out on to the sea.

We sat there for a while, recovering our breath and enjoying
the breeze. Then I said: Wouldn’t think anything had ever happened here, would
you? Everything so full of life. But all that area down there,” — I waved my
hand at the view below us — “all that area was so badly hit when the bomb fell.
But look at it now.”

Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers.

I’ve grown oddly fond of Kazuo Ishiguro’s detached, melancholy writing style with the occasional snippet of wisdom. But I’m just not sure if I like this book. Ishiguro writes a very specific type of story. A Pale View of Hills has a lot in common with An Artist of the Floating World, it has the narrator who tends to ramble about the past, the exotic setting, the tragic lives of the people post-war and the you-knew-this-was-coming-but-BAM-anyway ending. Being his debut, though, A Pale View of Hills isn’t as refined as Ishiguro’s other books. It’s abrupt and though the author has relied on characterization for story-building, it is filled with clumsy dialogue. He seems to be trying hard to be unique, with the purposely incomplete title among other things. The good thing is that the story is very eerie. If you start reading it, do complete it despite all the absurdities; it is full of seemingly inconsequential details that all make sense at the end. While I wasn’t too impressed by the book, overall, there were parts that haunted me for hours after I finished reading.

I’d recommend A Pale View of Hills only to a seasoned Ishiguro reader. Otherwise, it’s best to try An Artist of the Floating World, or Never Let Me Go.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Pictured: The library copy of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes with its beautiful blue cover and beside it, my favourite bookmark.

After really enjoying An Artist of the Floating World and recently, Never Let Me Go, I had certain expectations from this book. In a way, it’s very typically Ishiguro and in another, it’s really not what I had in mind.

Nocturnes is a collection of short stories, as the title says: five short stories of music and nightfall. I loved two, fairly liked another two, and was entirely confused and disappointed by one. The book has a nostalgic, almost silly romantic air to it and shows the way music intensely affects people and relationships. The stories are tied together by a sense of lingering regret. There are some recurring characters.
Crooner: This is the first story in the collection and one that I really loved. A Polish guitar player meets the once famous musician Tony Gardner at a piazza where he spends time playing for various groups, bored by the monotony of his life. After spending a day with Tony Gardner, our narrator realizes that his idol and inspiration is like every other man, lost and desperate. The musician is not really his music, just the way an author, I suppose, isn’t necessarily his book. In that one encounter the guitar player learns a lot, perhaps more than he wants to, about Mr. Gardner, his wife Lindy and the world they live in. He is surprised, shocked, touched and awed, but by the end, unsurprisingly, the encounter hardly affects his idea of the singer. The build up to the tragi-comic ending is nice and what could have been a rather wordy narration is delightfully conversational. The story is beautiful in its simplicity.

“..his voice came out just the way I remembered it – gentle, almost husky, but with a huge amount of body, like it was coming through an invisible mike. And like all the best American singers, there was that weariness in his voice, even a hint of hesitation, like he’s not a man accustomed to laying open his heart this way. That’s how all the greats do it.”

Come Rain Or Come Shine: This story was very weird and I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t understand it well, because if I did, then I don’t know why the hell it was part of this collection. A man visits his old friends and realizes that their marriage is falling apart, that he is meant to patch things up between them by making the wife see how miserable he is and how happy they are in comparison. I don’t like to watch physical comedy and even less to read it. So the scene where the woman walks in on the friend wrecking her house and chewing paper, while staging a fake dog attack was very awkward. And I get that the story was more than that: it was about the pathetic idea that the only thing this man’s friends appreciated in him was his taste in music and how, even though they had bonded over it so well, they didn’t think it mattered. That’s all I can think of. So I’m assuming I didn’t understand this story or why it was humorous: I do welcome explanations.

Malvern Hills: This is another story in the collection that I thought was just fabulous. It’s written in a lazy, meandering tone and lets on a lot more about the narrator than the narrator perhaps intends, which reminded me of Never Let Me Go. The book jacket describes this as the story of “a struggling singer-songwriter unwittingly involved in the failing marriage of a couple he’s only just met.” It’s about being a struggling artist and having to deal with people who don’t value art or understand why you want to be a artist, it’s about that odd connection and sense of belonging between complete strangers, who only having in common that shared passion, about music transporting you to a different place, about being cruelly snatched back to reality every time. Ishiguro has this knack of focusing on the little moments and making them big, vivid.

“A power cyclist, kitted out in what looked like a black wetsuit, went speeding by us, and for the next few moments, we all watched his frantic receding shape.”

Nocturne: The title story is odd, nice, though not my favourite. The characters are pitiable and funny; the story features Lindy Gardner from Crooner, in a hotel room with her face wrapped in bandages following a plastic surgery. Starring alongside her, in the room next-door, is our narrator, a talented but underrated jazz musician, who has convinced himself that plastic surgery will bring him the fame he deserves. It’s a sad story about shallow artificiality, about groping blindly in the dark, about jealousy and all those little emotions that blur out the rest of the world and make us do the craziest of things. It drags on a bit, though, and gets confusingly, abruptly surreal in the middle. What I liked was seeing Lindy Gardner through another perspective.

“Maybe it was because I’d become so bored by this point; or just that my mood was on the up again; or that the thought of having a fellow prisoner to swap stories with was extremely appealing. Or maybe I wasn’t so immune myself to the glamor thing. In any case, despite everything I felt about Lindy Gardner, when I read this, I felt a tinge of excitement, and I found myself telling Gracie to let Lindy know I’d be over at five.”

Cellists: This was perhaps the most wittily crafted story of the five and being the last, it did have the most lasting impression. Had the book ended with the second story, I wouldn’t have liked it. This was a good ending and it was almost as if it completed the point the writer was trying to make throughout the book, and quite perfectly, I must add. According to the book jacket, this story is about ‘a young cellist whose tutor promises to “unwrap” his talent.’ That tells very little about the actual story, which is about the innate aptitude for music, the need for recognition, the ego and its inability to deal with failure, about the metaphorical muse and about being scared even, and well, I think from the whole collection, this is one story that is truly unique and that could stir something in you. It should be read not summarized, so I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“He resolved, out of politeness, to endure this uninvited tutorial for at most another five minutes. But he found himself staying a little longer, then longer again. He played some more, she talked again. Her words would always strike him initially as pretentious and far too abstract, but when he tried to accommodate their thrust into his playing, he was surprised by the effect.  Before he realized, another  hour had gone by.”

Overall, this isn’t a book I would normally read. It’s about music, art and life; none of which I quite understand. It’s something to enjoy and be sad about on a quiet afternoon and wonder about late into the night. I’m not completely done wondering just yet. Meanwhile, I need to get The Remains of the Day from the library, I have heard far too much about the book in the past couple of days and while some stories from this collection did puzzle me, I’m starting to develop a kind of vague fondness for Ishiguro’s writing.

 This wasn’t read specifically for the Japanese Literature Challenge, but it fits, so why not.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Often, when I read a book, I end up noting things down along the way. It then turns into a sort of rant-review and I can think of nothing else to write later. This post doesn’t have much of a beginning nor an end. Of course, if you’ve already read Never Let Me Go, this post would make a lot more sense to you than if you haven’t. I have to say, though: it is definitely worth a read. From the two books I’ve read of his, I find the author rather talented, mostly for having produced two quite different books. (The other one I read was An Artist of the Floating World.)

Summary: The book is narrated by a thirty year old woman, Kathy, who has been a carer for twelve years now. She is looking back on her life in this post-war world. Kathy and her friend Ruth were students of a special boarding school “Hailsham.” They spent their childhoods there, with the teachers (guardians) being the only people they had in their lives apart from themselves; they had no families and weren’t even allowed outside the school. The children were different from the people outside, you know, the “normal people”, though none of them knew why. Kathy reminisces about her past, about bonding with the misfit Tommy, losing him to sassy little Ruth, the quiet loneliness that followed, and other seemingly little incidents that build up to the moment when the students realize what fate has in store for them in the outside world. Kathy talks about meeting Tommy and Ruth years later, as their carer and helping them through their donations. Kathy is now about to quit being a carer and finally become a donor herself.

Never Let Me Go was so sad. Great, but very sad. It was depressing, it just got more depressing and more truthful with every page and the ending was so honest, it hurt. I liked it, of course and here’s why.

Most post-apocalyptic, dystopian books try to be suspenseful and fail. The plots follow a kind of formula: where there’s this post-tragedy futuristic world that’s supposedly working just fine, until our protagonist starts to not-fit-in and soon realizes that under the facade of a very well-functioning society lies this whole underground community of rebels. More often than not, the protagonist joins them and almost always, fails in overthrowing the system or loses something of himself in his attempt. Sure, dystopian fiction calls for this pessimistic, “Oh God, is this really how the world’s going to end up?” and tragic “No, wait, the world already is kind of like this, isn’t it?” flurry of reactions. But an author putting a lot of trouble into making the plot suspenseful, when we all know this is going to happen, gets tiring after a while. The thing that irritated me to no end in The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, was that very silly withholding of information. I couldn’t focus on anything, but that aura of mystery the narrator kept trying to create. It was a very childish technique of keeping someone interested, which combined with the overly obvious “message”, just didn’t have much of an impression on me. Deliberately misleading the readers into thinking something else, while employing the formula anyway is not very creative (unless it’s something like I am Legend, all the planning usually just gets in the way of actually sending across a message.)

What’s creative is coming up with a whole new approach to the story, which is what I think Ishiguro has done here. He’s never kept the pretense of “mystery”. It’s quite clear from the very beginning why the children are ‘special’, why they’re at Hailsham and how they’re going to end up. If you haven’t already guessed, I won’t say what, but I can promise you, you’ll guess before you reach even the seventh page. The narrator, Kathy, assumes we know, since we’re from such a school ourselves and focuses on her story, instead. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, the point of Never Let Me Go, the message that the author was trying to get across, seemed rather subtle. The characters in this book, quite maudlin and immature in their ideas, told a lot more than an unlikely hero would have.

The book made me think about what ‘doing good’ means, about double standards and how people like to believe in the ultimate good, even though we’re all just as confused as the next person. Do we try to believe our life makes sense only to gain some semblance of control, as we stand on the edge of an infinite pit of darkness, desperately trying to keep our balance. The book has no fairy tale ending. It just leaves a lingering feeling of helplessness that characterizes the lives of the people in the book, not to mention, our own lives. A loss of control that can only be dealt with by acceptance.