Mayavaram is a little town near Thanjavur, and its most famous landmark is the Vaitheeswaran temple. The streets around the temple are filled with practitioners of a type of astrology called Nadi Josyam, which is based on the belief that every life is preordained, and that whoever preordained lives wrote down what would happen to a select few on palm leaf scrolls. The astrologers around the temple (claim that they) inherited these scrolls, and if they can locate the scroll that pertains to you, all they have to do to predict your future is read it out aloud.
There are multiple scrolls for every visitor (for the preordainers knew exactly who would visit) : a general one that provides an executive summary of life, and more specialized scrolls that zero in on specific aspects. Among these is is a scroll that talks about the manner of death that awaits the visitor. Hardly anyone who visits the astrologers wants to know what their scroll of death says. For even if you know, you cannot change fate. Or can you?
A young woman named Kathy H runs into two of her closest friends – Ruth and Tommy – in unusual circumstances and starts reminiscing about their shared past. That past is deceptively normal – life at Hailsham, a boarding school not dissimilar to the ones in those Enid Blyton books of yore, with normal boarding school type things happening: friendships, fistfights, heartbreaks and the general feeling of happiness that seems to prevail in such societies of young people. But like a clever composer injecting occasional melancholy notes in an otherwise merry musical score, Ishiguro uses the subtlest twists of language – an odd word here, an unusual phrase there – to tell you that through the seeming veneer of normalcy, something is just not right.
As the symphony progresses, the odd note is more and more apparent, and we start discovering that the students at Hailsham are different from the rest of us. They have been brought into the world for a specific purpose whose consummation will consume.. ok, extract a heavy toll on them sounds better.
This information is doled out to the residents of Hailsham in bits and pieces – usually as afterthoughts to more immediate topics – and its importance is played down, but over time they are able to piece together the snippets to form a hazy picture of what lies in store for them. Their entire life is preordained, and the students accept the dissembled truth fatalistically, hesitant to probe any deeper. Much like visitors to an astrologer, the students believe they are better of not knowing all the details. Are they?
After school the three friends drift apart, and their lives diverge until they run into each other a few years on. A metaphorical visit to a stranded boat and a confession later, Kathy and Tommy realize something: they want to postpone their fate. Can they? Can anyone?
There is some science in the book, but it is all incidental – Never Let Me Go is as much Science Fiction as say, Blind Assassin. Isihiguro uses a contemporary scientific development as a plot device to create a preordained society so that he can explore the questions raised in this review.
The writing is very Ishiguro – laidback and precise – the simplest of words are employed, but when they are strung together in sentences, they magically acquire a lyrical feel to them. Ishiguro is one of the best prose stylists around, someone who realizes the virtue of simplicity. Where a Rushdie would have toyed with the words – Hail and Sham are particularly fertile words for febrile wordplay – Ishiguro just describes things exactly the way they are: what happened when, and how things were when it happened. If the characterization is trite (Kathy could be the narrator in any one of Ishiguro’s books), the stylish writing more than makes up for it.
As Kathy reminisces, going back and forth in time, constructing a disjointed image of life at Hailsham, the reader identifies with her emotions. We want her to ask more, to find out more, but understand why she will not, why no one will. When life at school ends, we feel the way Kathy and her friends do – anxious and excited, and unusually resigned. Is this how we would be when confronted with something like this? (A Time article about the behavior of people in crises comes to mind – most everyone sits waiting for events to take their course).
Up to this point, the book was brilliant. And then came the ending – a let us sit down and talk, and I will explain all of it to you ending – that took a lot of luster out of the book. Suddenly, the plot looked a little contrived. The hackneyed nature of the characters became more apparent, as did the parallels to other Ishiguro works. (DoZ discusses the obvious parallels here). A little bit of a let down.
Overall, Never Let Me Go is a good book, but it is one that entertains more than it challenges.
This post is part of Veena’s Booker Mela.