A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Remains of the Day is one of my favourite novels. I loved everything about it; the characters, the stuffy yet vulnerable Stevens, the setting in that transition period between an older way of life and modernity, the beautifully crafted, formal prose tinged with humour, the poignant undercurrents of emotion. Maybe that’s why my disappointment with Never Let me Go was so great.
There are many similarities between the two novels; both have a first person narrator whose reminiscences form the bulk of the novel, both deal with wasted lives and lost opportunities, both narrators are trapped in a social construct from which they are unable to escape and hence fail to seize an opportunity for love which presents itself. But where Stevens is totally believable, Kathy is unsubstantial, where Stevens’ predicament is heartbreakingly understandable, Kathy’s is implausible, where The Remains of the Day is poignant, Never Let me Go is irritating.
Warning:If you haven’t read this book but you intend to, then maybe you might like to stop reading now as some spoilers may follow.
The novel is set in an alternative, contemporary England and is narrated by Kathy H., a thirty-one year old carer. The facts behind Kathy’s existence leak out as the novel progresses, not because Kathy is deliberately concealing any information but because she assumes the reader is aware of the context and doesn’t need to be told.
We learn that Kathy was raised in a progressive kind of orphanage/boarding-school, Hailsham, of which she has very fond memories. Since leaving the school she has become the carer for, among others, two of her closest friends from that time: Ruth and Tommy. At the end of this year she will cease being a carer and will progress to being a donor. In fact, Kathy and her friends are clones produced for the sole purpose of producing vital organs for transplantation.
At Hailsham, the truth about their future was not exactly concealed from the students but neither was it fully spelt out. They were encouraged, indeed obliged, to produce works of art from an early age, the best of which are chosen by Madame, a regular visitor and taken away to a mysterious Gallery. At sixteen they leave Hailsham and move out to the Colleges, other, more basic accommodation until they are ready to take on their roles as carers for donors who undergo several donations until they ‘complete’. The final stage of the process is to become a donor too.
Factual details are very sparse possibly because of the tenuous basis on which the novel is built. We find out very little about the cloning process, the donation procedures or even the administration behind the system. I couldn’t help wondering what ‘vital organs’ a person could donate four times without dying or even why it was useful to keep them alive between operations. Why not do a clear-out in one fell swoop and be done with it?
Once out of Hailsham, the students are relatively free in their movements; once, Kathy and four other students borrow a car to drive to Norfolk in an attempt to find a ‘possible’ for Ruth, the original from which she was cloned. Yet it doesn’t seem to occur to any of the hundreds of students to try to run away, escape or rebel in any way although they are all aware that they are doomed to die before thirty. This possibility is never discussed throughout the novel and this felt false to me.
It could be argued that the mechanics of the system is not the point of the novel, that the interaction of the characters in this extreme situation is, but even on this level it fails to deliver. Much of the novel deals with the analysis of minute shifts in the relationships between the main characters, and of shadings of the atmosphere against the backdrop of their destiny and although this could have been interesting I found it became excessive and wearing.
The characters of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy lacked development and never came to life for me. Such things as the role of art in their lives was treated very superficially with no insight of any sort. Even the prose is dull, unimaginative and repetitive.
“…the both of us, Tommy and I, we remembered what had happened in the car, when we’d more or less ganged up on her.”
16 lines later
“… or if he was remembering again our ganging up on Ruth in the car.”
9 lines later
“it wasn’t simply that we’d ganged up on Ruth.’
Consistency with the character’s voice is no defence for tediousness, at least not in my court. However, if anyone is interested in presenting a case for the defence I’d be glad to hear it.
Faber and Faber; New Ed edition (2 Mar 2006) (orig. 2005) 276 pp. ISBN-10: 057122413X