Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dystopia and... Dystopia?

26. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The About: 
Kathy H., a carer, reminisces her life in a secluded boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere not too far from Norfolk, where she met perhaps the only important people in her life, Tommy and Ruth. They wouldn't really know their location or about anyone else, really, as their knowledge of the outside world comes only from their guardians, who bit by bit tell the children about their futures as donors. Through her memories Kathy tries to piece together the reality of what Hailsham meant for the children--a school for special children who needed to produce art and stay extremely healthy--and the reality when it dawns on her, and on all of the students eventually as they grow older, that their main purpose in life is to provide organs for other people. Although they learn about this at an early age, coming to terms with it is an entirely different process altogether.

It's almost impossible to write about this book without revealing some twists and turns. Early on, the reader will realize that when Kathy is a carer for donors and some of the donors are from her old school, we are really talking about people who are prepped to be donors. Then slowly, just as for the children growing in Hailsham, the truth about their lives is revealed. The reading experience is surprisingly similar to the children's growing experience: we know what is going to happen, but we still don't know enough. But maybe just enough to think we have been informed all along. Maybe that is why the ending does not come at all as a surprise, but is more like a depressing, expected end to the story although it is still slightly eyebrow-raising.

I have never before read anything by Ishiguro (for shame!), and I enjoyed his writing style very much. It's very straight-forward and lacking in flowery prose, yet it manages to create a dream-like haze around the story so it felt like I was reading the novel inside a cloud. And although I usually would roll my eyes at some of the stylistic choices*, somehow they did not bother me enough to stop reading this time.

Never Let Me Go is actually a very odd book: I can't tell whether I really liked it and that it deserves all the praise it's been getting, or whether it's a really mediocre book that does not have a single original thought in it. It's not like novels very much like this in style and topic haven't been written before (Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake comes to mind, and people better versed in sci-fi than I could name probably dozens of examples), so what made this one so special? It's even a boarding school story, which I usually can't stand with all the concentration on clicks and mindless teaching sessions. The book is an easy read, and a bit of a puzzler--which is why some have called it a sci-fi thriller--so it's basically like reading a whodunnit with less blood, gore and guns. But the suspense is still there.

The characters may be the carrying force in the novel: they all seem very real. Ruth is absolutely terrible in her two-facedness, and probably all of us have met someone like her; someone who kisses up to people she likes and makes up lies to cover her ignorance. Kathy, the narrator, is almost a tabula rasa: she attempts to understand everyone's motivations for bad or good behavior, and is ready to forgive everything. We readers just have to remember that this is how she tells how she is, but often in the story her behavior is everything but angelic: she also can be catty and a terrible friend--and we're just supposed to feel bad for her because she herself feels bad for her behavior. And then there is poor Tommy, whose temper tantrums, occasional idiocy and lack in artistic talent leave him on the lower rungs in Hailsham's hierarchy and possibly on the express lane to become a donor. Just like often in real life, I don't understand why these three even hang out with each other if they have so much trouble getting along.

Then there is the issue of what is this story about. Well. It could be about the horrors of science gone too far. The more I read it, I felt like there also was an analogy to animal rights' movement hiding somewhere under there. Free-ranged is better than cage-raised, right? And although I would be tempted to say that the book is about friendship, the more I think about it the less it seems so. It's more about settling for friends because you don't know anybody else due to circumstances. Quite depressing. So... just enjoy it and take the book as you wish: a cautionary tale or a sappy romantic story akin to The Love Story.

(*He does this magazine-serial thing constantly, where he'll refer to an incident that has not yet been talked about in the most cliffhangerish way possible. You know what I'm talking about (I made up the following examples): "We all were great friends that summer but looking back, I should have known on the day we found the small rat that it would all fall apart..." *que chapter about the small rat incident* "Now the small rat buried, and us standing there with awkward smiles, there was something odd in the air. But we would remain great friends until the day our teacher saw what she shouldn't have." *que the scene with the teacher*. "That event definitely put a wedge into our friendship, and I suppose I had suspected that the teacher was going to be behaving oddly already earlier that summer, but I just didn't put the pieces together back then.*que scene about what happened earlier that summer* And so on. You can almost hear the Dun-dun-DUUUUN! play in the background each time. )

27. Ruuhkavuosi by Pauliina Susi ("The Entire Year Booked", perhaps)

The About: Minna is a 30-something woman attempting to manage her life: within the upcoming year, she only needs to finish translating about 5 formulaic romance novels, pop out a baby and help build a house from scratch with his boyfriend, who is reluctant to marry, all the while finishing her master's thesis (for which she doesn't even have a topic yet...). Her calendar triumphantly already announces all the finished products in the future, but the further the pregnancy and the house building project go awry, the further Minna seems to slip into depression and get lost in her lack of control. Although the story on the surface is absolutely depressing, Susi manages to squeeze out multiple laugh-out-loud moments from both Minna's irrational thought processes and her sharp tongue without ever ending up belittling the protagonist.

Thoughts: Written slightly tongue in cheek, this story manages to take a realistic look into the head of a control freak who ends up suffering from post-partum depression big time while still keeping an upbeat mode. In the beginning Minna simply seems like a drama queen, and I had a good laugh at some of the word choices and thought-processes she had because they were so recognizable to me. When the mood of the book takes a turn to the darker and we find out that Minna's drama queen behavior has all along been a seed for depression, we can still laugh with her as she's attempting to understand why the other mothers in the adults-and-children group are such homicidal husband-haters while she herself is slowly coming to terms with her own personality. It's all in the style of writing, really, and I thought the story balances a difficult topic and humor together very well.