Thursday, July 1, 2010

Never Let Me Go, The Office of the Dead

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go works on so many levels it's hard to know where to start.  It's a coming-of-age novel, a consideration of bioethics, a novel of alienation, a subtle science fiction novel, and more.

A lot of what makes this book work is the slow pace at which Ishiguro reveals details about the world of the Haylsham students.  As they learn about themselves, they also learn about their place in the world around them; I think this is why so many reviews talk about this as a coming-of-age novel.  But that's too reductive a view of the novel; the coming-of-age part is only the first two-thirds of the story, and the final third gives the story its resonance.

We follow Cathy, Tommy, and Ruth through their childhoods, but it's when they reach adulthood that their story reaches its full level of pathos.  More than that, though, I think that the pathos runs through the novel, in Cathy's off-handed comments about other characters who've "completed," or in the way she just accepts things that we readers recoil at.

This also isn't really a book about cloning or medical research.  As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, if you have want to send a message, send a telegram.  Ishiguro is using the bioethics theme to give context to his deeper story about alienation, not to posit some realistic "this is where things are going" warning.

Overall, Never Let Me Go is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

I liked Andrew Taylor's Office of the Dead, as well, the third volume in his Roth trilogy (The first two were The Four Last Things  and The Judgment of Strangers)  I liked the first one a lot, but, in retrospect it was the most traditional of the three.  A serial killer kidnaps a little girl, and the hunt is on to find her before she can kill the girl.  It stuck out for me because of the sympathetic portraits of the people involved, and the way it didn't spend too much time on the mechanic of the police investigation, preferring to spend time on the girl's parents.  The second one was, I thought, less successful, partly because nothing really happens till right near the end, and Taylor wasn't able to drive the book forward without a suspense angle.

It seems he figured out the trick for Office of the Dead, though.  There's no real suspense here, either -- the suspicious killing shows up 270 pages into the novel, and is disposed of a few pages later.  Instead, Taylor has written a novel about the way that our past binds us into our present.  It's a theme of the whole trilogy as well; Francis Youlgreave becomes a major influence on events in the three novels, even though he died decades before the first one starts.  This third novel, though, charts a course of redemption for its protagonist.  She's the only one of the major characters in the three novels who can accept her past but still move on, forgiving wrongs done to her by others.

No comments: