Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

This 2005 novel is built around a highly original idea. But the author leads us to that idea too slowly to suit me. So slowly, in fact, that I was unsure if I wanted to continue reading beyond the first 50 or so pages.

But I did. I had hesitated because the work begins with an adult, Kathy H, addressing the reader about her days at a special school, Hailsham, where nothing dramatic happens, simply ordinary school chatter and childish intrigue; where her fellow classmates have hidden characteristics and her teachers have hidden purposes, depriving each of any intriguing depth; and where a certain mystery about the children’s future hangs in the air. The students are called special, but they are not sure initially why they are at this school, why they are special, or what their destiny may be.

And that uncertainty hangs over them for most of the novel, especially what will become of them when they leave the school. All this begins with, as James Woods says, “the squabbles and jockeying and jealousies of ordinary schoolchildren.” Indeed, Woods acknowledges that “Kathy’s pale narration represents a calculated risk on Ishiguro’s part.” Gradually, matters become clearer, however, as these students graduate to the Cottages. And, oh, so slowly, we learn that they will become carers and donors, although even then it is not yet clear what those two categories mean. Overall, this is a narrative characterized by understatement, an approach that removes its inherent drama, reminding this reader of the understatement between the butler and housekeeper in the movie, The Remains of the Day.

Moreover, this understatement is supplemented by a back-and-forth narrative technique in which Kathy presents a statement or the outcome of a scene and then tells the reader she has to go back in order that he understand the significance of that statement or that scene. After a while, this approach grows too calculated, and too repetitive, for its intended purpose, which is to create periodic moments of drama. It is also, of course, a byproduct of Kathy’s uncertainty a propos her friends’ motives and her own future.

The novel is built around Kathy’s relationship with two friends, Ruth and Tommy. The two girls clearly like Tommy when they meet at their school, Hailsham, and the reader suspects an emotional triangle will soon develop. And it does, but not as the reader anticipates. For one girl wins, and then sacrifices, and then the other girl wins, and sacrifices. Which is intended to be moving. But the understated, undramatic approach to their sacrifices did stand in the way of any emotional response from this reader.

Also contributing to the lack of drama is that Kathy is such an understanding person. She refuses to get mad at anyone, always seeking to understand why other people, particularly Ruth and Tommy, act in the way they do. Thus, at the heart of the novel, there is a lack of dramatic tension within their three-sided relationship.

It is unclear at the start, as I said, and deliberately so, what being a donor means and what being a carer means. But even as it becomes more clear, what is not clear is how one moves from being a carer to a donor, only that some remain longer as carers before they become donors. And yet, this progression, which plays a significant role in the novel, remains unexplained.

Woods takes a different approach than I do to this work. He writes: “Never Let Me Go is a fantasy so mundanely told, so excruciatingly ordinary in transit, its fantastic elements so smothered in the loam of the banal and so deliberately grounded, that the effect is not just of fantasy made credible or lifelike, but of the real invading fantasy, bursting into its eccentricity and claiming it as normal.” He calls this novel an allegory. And so, he says, the programmed futility of these children’s lives is a metaphor for the programmed futility of our natural life in today’s world. He says Ishiguro uses the tools of fantasy to create this allegory. And that “the very dullness of these children, their lack of rebelliousness, even incuriousness, is what grounds the book’s fantasy.” Thus, the weakness that I see is, for him, the novel’s strength.

Which, of course, I do not accept, not in literary terms. It may work to convey an allegorical message, but my criteria in judging a novel calls for me getting inside the characters, in being able to understand or relate to them. Whereas Ishiguro allows me inside their questioning but not inside their hopes or dreams of the future. Because they do not have a future. Their lives are circumscribed, whether by the novel’s reality or by his allegory. Of course, Woods might argue that Ishiguro’s “real interest is not in what we discover but in what his characters discover, and how it will affect them. He wants us to inhabit their ignorance, not ours.”

On a more realistic level, Joseph O’Neill writes in The Atlantic that
the children’s “hesitant progression into knowledge of their plight is an extreme and heart-breaking version of the exodus of all children from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent adult world conspires to place them.” Extreme, yes, I would agree, but heart-breaking, no.

The title refers to a song that Kathy likes and sings aloud. She innocently interprets these words in a love song to be about a woman, like her, who cannot have a baby and then has one, and never wants to let it go. Whereas a school matron sees her and weeps, thinking, we later learn, that the scene is symbolic of the innocent world this schoolgirl is clinging to as opposed to the inevitable scientific world that is coming. It is also representative of the multi-level meanings in this volume of two separate worlds, and in which one world unknowingly serves the other.

Although Ishiguro has received critical acclaim for this and other works, and is highly respected in his adoptive Britain, this novel alone would not prompt me to read more of his work. Nevertheless, I will, because of that reputation and because I did very much enjoy Orphans. Besides, you cannot evaluate a novelist, or his appeal to you, based on one novel. And, certainly, the ambition of this novel, as well as of Orphans, promises additional rewarding worlds to come from Ishiguro’s pen. (April, 2016)

The Plover, by Brian Doyle


This 2014 work is quite a novel, quite an unusual novel. Indeed, a tour de force. It breaks so many rules, in fact, as it creates worlds of its own. It offers both a real world and an imaginary world, each created with poetry, sensitivity, and humor. But most significant are the many rules of fiction it breaks—with its endless, rhythmic sentences, its magic realism of talking birds, and its direct and indirect addressing of the reader.

This is the story of a man, Declan O’Donnell, who journeys around the vast Pacific in his small fishing boat, the Plover. He revels in his solitude, but slowly takes on passengers along the way, passengers who expand his and our awareness of the expanse and depths of both the Pacific and the human experience. But this book requires patience. It is not a book for everyone. For a long while, I wondered where it was going, much less where the boat and Declan, its captain, were going. Finally, I realized that there were no rules. That I was to experience here the journey within as much as the novel without. That this was not just about reality, this was also an inner voyage, a journey into the meaning of human nature and the implications of our natural environment.

This Pacific voyage is so real, however, that one wonders how Doyle has made it come alive with such detail. Yes, the credits listed in his acknowledgements suggest tremendous research, which is often the key to richly conceived novels such as this. But one also speculates that it is time he has spent at sea himself that has enabled Doyle to capture this experience so brilliantly.

And yet the strength of this novel is not in that reality, but in the magic, meaning the author’s imagination. In the miracle of an impaired, dumb child, for example, who can communicate with birds, one of whom suddenly enables her to speak. And in other birds that give comfort and anticipate danger. There is even literary magic in the long, complex, yet clear sentences that stretch the core of a thought or of a situation to its verbal limits.

Underlying the magic and the beauty, however, is a story, for Doyle understands that he needs a story in order to draw the reader through what are at times ephemeral pages. And so the hero Declan picks up various passengers, each with a story to tell and each contributing to the journey. There is an old friend Piko, and his daughter Pipa who has been crippled by an accident and cannot talk; Tauromauri, a woman so huge she is first taken to be a man; Tungaru, a minister for fisheries, etc., who dreams of a Utopian nation of Pacific islands; and Danilo, a refugee with a marvelous singing voice. And finally, for suspense, there is the mysterious Tanets, a ship in pursuit of the Plover. Why is its captain, Enrique, so intent on sinking the Plover and its passengers? It will become clear when he becomes the final passenger.

There is additional suspense in a typhoon, a kidnapping and rescue, a hijacking, and a sea battle, but it is balanced by Declan’s introspection as he seeks to escape society, and society keeps confronting him with new passengers, new adventures, and new implications. And hovering in Declan’s mind are the writings of Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher whose thinking enriches the context of Declan’s search for meaning across a vast and empty Pacific Ocean.

One senses that Doyle declines to be limited by the rules of fiction. Perhaps this follows his interest in the spiritual aspects of life. Thus, just as that level of perception breaks the bounds of reality, so does a similar perspective seek to break theough the limits of the literary world. I do wonder how much this limits his exposure inside the literary world, but one suspects his primary concern is exploring the limits of both literature and the human experience—as, indeed, Declan is exploring his own limits across a Pacific also limitless.

This novel offers the continuation of Declan’s life after he fades into the Pacific on the final pages of Mink River. One wonders if Doyle will continue Declan’s story, and extend these books into a trilogy. He does open the door to a third volume, when Declan discovers a potential love on the final pages here. Such a continuation may depend, however on Doyle’s interest in exploring further a Declan who has changed from a troubled hero in the first volume to a solitary, searching hero in the second. Do still new adventures await him, in which he will further pursue the fulfillment he seems denied? It would appear that love might well offer a new, and perhaps spiritual, horizon. (April, 2016)

Note: Because of a previous contact, I sent the author my review; and he wrote this in his response: “I am interested in writing novels that are experiences in and of themselves. I want the language to be a world; I want the reader to be lured in and mesmerized; I want them to hear and see and smell what the beings in the book do; I want you to be startled when you find a blank page at the end; I want you to come with me into imagination and possibility and the probability of the nominally impossible; I want you to question what you think you know; I want to soar and sail and dive and delve; I want to push the form as far as I can, and I have only one rule: be clear. As long as the reader doesn’t get clogged and slowed, everything is possible.”

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

This 2010 work is a remarkable book. It is the story of Louis Zamperini, a track star whom I do recall from my youth, although not as a star, much less the first potential four-minute miler. But the perseverance he developed from track does lead to his survival during his wartime experiences, and those experiences do justify both his life and this tremendous book.

Hillenbrand begins by describing Zamperini as a precocious brat in his youth, always stealing, brawling, and deceiving both adults and friends. But this toughness and independence would, as Hillenbrand describes, help him survive a crash landing at sea, a month and a half in a foundering pontoon lifeboat, and two and a half years of horrendous treatment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war.

How Zamperini survived is brilliantly told, the longest section being given to his story as a POW in Japan—and how he and his friends survived the cruelty of their captors, especially a brutal guard they called the Bird, as well as the horrendous physical conditions at the camps. The dominance of this section is no doubt due not only to the length of this experience but to the accompanying stories of the many military men who were with him at the camps and whom the author tracked down. Whereas only two men survived the ditching in the Pacific, and that physical trial lasted 47 days.

Equally heart-rending are the repercussions Zamperini endured after the war, the drinking, the violent temper, and the abusiveness that led his wife to threaten divorce. This was certainly PTSD before it was known as that, but it is known today and makes this book all the more powerful. What is lacking, however, is an effective portrayal of the redemption referred to in the volume’s subtitle. Yes, it may have originated with sermons by Billy Graham, but the author does not describe how our hero converted to being a born-again Christian, nor his subsequent activity as a Christian evangelist.

I think this element is missing because this conversion from hatred to forgiveness and from a closed mind to being open about his experiences, happened inside his mind, even inside his soul, and that perspective is something either the author or Zamperini was not interested in discussing.

Indeed, when we get inside Zamperini in this work, it concerns his thinking about the situation at hand, whether running a four-minute mile, surviving a crash, or enduring the trials of the camp. But there is nothing about the faith he was raised in, or the life philosophy that these horrible events might have inspired. Everything we witness, his trials and his degradation, as well as those of others, are explored in their own terms. That is, on the surface level of our existence. Or was Zamperini perhaps reluctant to discuss leaving his Catholic upbringing for the Christian evangelists?

That is, his final redemption appears to exist much further inside this person that Hillenbrand wishes to portray. Indeed, she leaves him looking deep into a bible, and then a year later returning to Japan to forgive his prison guard tormentors. Both are the actions of a Christian. But what happened inside Zamperini in those intervening 12 months to prompt this change and his return to Japan? This, I believe, is the true final chapter in this story of Louis Zamperini. And we never know it. Was Zamperini incapable of explaining his internal life? Or had Hillenbrand no interest in it? Instead, she condenses the remaining years of his life, as he reaches ninety, as well as the remaining years of a few of his POW companions. Which left me unsatisfied.

For this is the story of a man who was unbroken during his wartime experiences, then was broken by the after effects when he returned home, and finally pulled himself together and became a contributing member of society. But we do not experience that final development. In the acknowledgments, Hillenbrand mentions her poor health, and one wonders if that might have forced her to cut off the Zamperini story earlier than she might otherwise have done. I have also read elsewhere that she suffers from a serious illness.

During the weeks on a fragile craft that he shared with two others, during that frightening time in the middle of the Pacific, with its brilliant description of circling sharks and an angry sea, Zamperini promised God that if he survived he “would serve you forever.” And in his frightening postwar decline, a Billy Graham sermon prompts him to recalls this. But it comes off as a sidelight in Hillenbrand’s telling, whereas I believe it must have been central to Zamperini’s recognition of his human and spiritual failings at that point. And it is where the author has shortchanged the reader.

I am afraid I am harping on one chapter in an otherwise brilliant tale, a tale of courage and perseverance, of suffering and the denial of despair, of stubbornness and clever subterfuge. But the reference to survival and resilience in the subtitle is followed by the word, redemption. And unlike survival and resilience, that word is not explored or dramatized. Thus, for me, there is no true climax to this story. Zamperini descends into the hell of postwar violence and drunkenness, and then is mysteriously resurrected.

This version may be valid in describing the life of Christ, but this is the life of a human being struggling on his own. There is no God in his life, at least in this telling of his life. And, needless to say, I think there should be, at least be a spiritual element. Zamperini’s attendance at Billy Graham rallies is not enough. We need to see his internal reactions to Graham’s message.

What was remarkable about this book is that each time I returned to it, I immediately remembered both the entire Zamperini story to date and where I had left off. This rarely happens to me, and I attribute it to Hillenbrand’s sterling craft. She is a magnificent story-teller. At least, when it comes to surface events. Here, these are the crash, the loneliness in an angry sea, and the horror and inhumanity of the wartime Japanese prison camps. But the word “unbroken” also refers to our hero’s interior life. And here, the interior life is confined to his reactions to the brutality he faced. Whereas, I would claim it also refers to his spiritual resources that extend beyond those brutal experiences and should well include his interpretation of life’s meaning, particularly of his own life’s meaning. (April, 2016)

My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey

This 2003 work begins as a fascinating tale, and then becomes a confusing one. Because it has narrators within narrators, and then stories within stories within stories—and compounds this by skipping about among different time frames, from World War II on. It begins as a tale in modern times narrated by a poetry magazine editor named Sarah. She is lured to Malaysia by a family friend, John Slater, whom she despises because of his pretense as a poet and because she thinks he was involved in the death of her mother. So one expects the novel to be driven by that relationship.

But this is Peter Carey, who loves devious plotting. In Malaysia, Sarah encounters Christopher Chubb, an Australian poet who in the past has fabricated a hoax by creating an elaborate, pretentious poem by a man named McCorkle. This poem is published in an Australian poetry magazine, but when the hoax is revealed, Weiss, the magazine editor, is tried for obscenity and later mysteriously dies.

This is the set-up, and we later learn that the plot is based on a real episode in Australian literary history. And it is here, one-third into the novel, that the complications begin. Chubb shows Sarah a page from a new work of poetry by McCorkle, and she is intent on getting the full manuscript for her magazine, not initially sure if it has been written by Chubb or by McCorkle. Ah, the complexity that Carey loves. For McCorkle turns out to be real, a huge person, and he has meanwhile kidnapped Chubb’s daughter, apparently in revenge for the hoax, and taken her off into the jungle. This is the daughter of an ambitious beautiful woman, Nousette, an artist and photographer who befriends both Chubb and Slater, and fathers a daughter by one of them, a daughter she gives up to Chubb and so he assumes is his.

Whereupon Chubb pursues McCorkle to repossess his daughter, but on finding them his daughter initially rejects him. In the jungle, however, this McCorkle has produced a marvelous journal of poetry that impresses Chubb, and when he returns he teasingly offers it to Sarah. Thus the confusing time frames, and this is when my real confusion began.

Is the McCorkle who first shows up at the Weiss trial this real person in the jungle? How did he become a writer? Is this a bit of magic realism? Or is he not real, still the figment of Chubb’s imagination? For example, when McCorkle steals the baby daughter, he says that Chubb never gave him a childhood, and that there are consequences to creating him, McCorkle. Which development is reflected in the Mary Shelley Frankenstein quotation at the start of the novel: “the miserable monster whom I had created.”

In any event, Chubb pursues them into the jungle to recover his daughter. Of course, we know this pursuit only through Chubb’s narration to Sarah, and these events are scattered through the novel. In any event, we ask ourselves, how much is really true? And then, when Chubb discovers this unknown marvelous work in the jungle, we wonder if McCorkle is really the writer. The McCorkle created by Chubb. And, finally, there are the two women Chubb is living with in the more recent world, one a scarred Chinese woman, while the other turns out to be the beautiful grown-up daughter, Tina—both of whom will be present at the violent end.

Indeed, I had to skim this novel again to understand the ending, to realize the love of these two women for McCorkle rather than Chubb, and their identification with the volume of poetry that McCorkle has produced in the jungle and they have brought back to the capital. It is actually a simple tale, but it has been made quite complex by the telling. Which many an author uses to create interest and suspense in a simple tale. Except, here, it has been too complex an approach for me, and the tale a too simple one of literary deceit.

That is, this is another tale that explores what is real and what is not real. Except, it is the not real, the poetry, the literary work, that is being explored for its reality. It also explores truth and lies, not just the hoax, but the plot as well. And it explores justice, as well, in the fate of Chubb, McCorkle, and the Australian poetry editor Weiss.

Plus, many of the characters are just pretending as they deal with each other. Slater is pretending to Sarah to get her to Malaysia. We later learn that Sarah’s father pretended to Sara about the death of her mother. (And that her father pretended not to be a homosexual, as Sarah has done as well.) And now in Malaysia, Sarah is pretending to Chubb in order to get the hidden manuscript, while Chubb is initially pretending to Sarah that he has access to it. McCorkle is pretending also, for he calls his hidden work My Life as a Fake. Even author Carey is pretending that he is writing a thriller when he is really writing about hoaxes and the prevalence of pretending in the literary world.

This has not been a satisfying novel, but its provocative situation has prompted me to read it to find out what is going on. And the pace is certainly there, and the revelations, to draw the reader on. Further Carey is not a must, but a provocative situation like this could well draw me into future work, as they have done in the past, such as with Oscar and Maggs. (March, 2016)