“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

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“My name is Kathy H.”

Kazuo Ishiguro was this month awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the news marked one of the very few times that I’ve agreed with the results of a major literary prize. I would have awarded it to him on the strength of this novel alone. Despite the huge fanfare that exists around The Remains of the Day, I’ve yet to have read it – the focus of this review and Nocturnes are the only Ishiguro I’ve read, but they’re heaven.

This is actually the third time I’ve read Never Let Me Go, but it had yet to feature on my blog and what with the need to be somewhere familiar and meaningful and the aforementioned award, I felt a reread was in order. I was wary about how many spoilers I would put in here, as I’m not sure how well integrated the story is to the cultural consciousness, but there are aspects I want to discuss that I can’t without giving away major plot points and so I say here now, there are spoilers below – stop reading now if you want to discover this book on your own.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H. She’s a young woman in England, reminiscing about her time at Hailsham, a prestigious school that houses some of her fondest memories. She is now trying to understand her childhood, with her friends including the bad-tempered by innocent Tommy, and the somewhat manipulative and tactless Ruth, and what it means for her adulthood. She now spends her days driving around the country, working as a carer, but it’s quite soon evident that Hailsham wasn’t quite what it seemed to be at first, and Kathy isn’t exactly ordinary.

This is an alternate England, where medical science clones humans and uses them for organ donation freely. Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and all their friends at Hailsham, and at various other schools around the country, are merely clones, and are taught that one day they will grow up and begin donations. As they grow up, their relationships strain, against maturity and the inevitability of their futures, and Kathy now just wants to try and make sense of what she’s been taught. And maybe she’s hopeful … maybe there’s another option. What if they could find their old teachers and ask for help?

The text is haunting in the way it grabs you and doesn’t let go. I first read this as a set text at university – one of the very few I enjoyed – and it hasn’t left me yet. There’s no big reveal as to what’s happening – information just drips in, mimicking the way the students seem to learn about it. This fits, too, given that Kathy is seemingly writing to a reader who is in the same position as her. You can’t help but feel sorry for them all, but the discovery of the truth is so gentle in its delivery that when it arrives, you’re also not terribly surprised and seem capable of taking it all in.

The characters themselves, the main ones at least, feel very rich, and while some people have questioned why they don’t try to run away from their circumstances, they fail to appreciate that psychologically their “purpose” is too deeply ingrained and besides, they have nowhere to run too. Because they can’t reproduce, sex isn’t a taboo among the students and is discussed freely, whereas topics of religion and philosophy are ignored or shied away from. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are all very deep and I enjoy them all. Ruth is catty and downright poisonous to Kathy and Tommy’s relationship, but she seems to be the one struggling most of all with their situation, lying to herself and to others. Kathy is perhaps the most passive, but also the most introspective, but part of that may just come from the fact she’s narrating, so we only really know what she’s thinking.

The biggest aspect of their time at school is that the main focus is on creativity. The best examples of their paintings, pottery and poems are then collected by the mysterious “Madame” for reasons they are unable to fathom at first. When the explanation comes, it will break your heart, as so many aspects of this book do. It’s easy to read, but it’s hardly the most uplifting novel. However, like I said, you get drawn in and if you emerge unchanged, then you might be beyond emotional rescue.

Little is explained about the wider world and exactly how and why this timeline veered off from our own. However, much of England is hinted at being somewhat dilapidated and underpopulated, and it’s explained later that the clones began to appear not long after “the war”, again assumed to be World War 2. But in a creepy England, where science and medical advances run on without much apparent worry surrounding ethics, it’s only later you begin to wonder – who won the war?

As a bibliophile of the highest order, I know I’m not really meant to have an answer when people ask me what my favourite book of all time is. It’s like asking a parent which of their children they love most. In all honesty, I don’t have a concrete answer, but Never Let Me Go sits, without question, somewhere in the top five. I can give little higher praise.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Free-Range Chickens” by Simon Rich (2009)

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chickens“Got your nose!”

As the news becomes more and more farcical, and I steadily lose the ability to comprehend what’s going on, I find that it’s better (in the short term, at least) so hide inside books. With this in mind, I now joyfully return to the mad mind of Simon Rich. One of the finest, silliest writers working today, my blog is already liberally sprinkled with his work – Ant Farm and Spoiled Brats to name two – and every time I dip into one of his collections, I come out smiling.

In this collection, we are treated to over fifty examples of sparkling flash fiction divided into the categories of “Growing Up”, “Going to Work”, “Daily Life”, “Relationships”, “Animals” and “God”. Rarely is a story more than two pages long, some are merely three or four lines, but each one is a perfectly crafted joke and tells so much more than what is revealed. A lot of them are simply lines of dialogue, but they’re all wonderfully smart and punchy.

Among others you have a young Simon learning about the tooth fairy for the first time and wondering whether there is a face fairy too; two frogs discussing the fact that they are killed and dissected for appalling crap science reports; Batman arguing with the mayor of Gotham City for better prisons to stop the Joker escaping; Count Dracula’s dating profile in which he attempts to prove he is a normal human; God forgetting exactly what his big plan is; what happens in the four years at acupuncture school; and the horrific truth behind logic problems. Two of the funniest – “Time Machine” and “Actor’s Nightmare” – are also among the shortest, but you’ll have to read them yourselves to see what I mean.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about this book, really. The stories are cleverly crafted and terribly funny, epitomising the adage that “brevity is wit”. There’s not a single wasted word and I can guarantee that this book will make you feel a whole lot better and perhaps a bit less alone.

“Just A Little Disco On An Open-Top Bus” by Candy Guard (2006)

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just a little“I had noticed that all I did was do things and then immediately regret them.”

I first read this book many years ago. Given the date it came out, I must have been eighteen or nineteen, perhaps. Over the following years, it remained on my shelf and if I ever caught sight of it, I smiled and remembered something funny from it. It was a cute, good book. Time passed and more and more scenes slipped from my memory, until earlier this year when my psychologist friend, who had reached a point where her usual crime novels had saturated her brain so much that she couldn’t close her eyes without seeing some dismembered cadaver, asked if I could recommend a book in which no one was disembowelled and was overall a bit lighter. This book immediately came to mind.

Trouble was, by this point, I couldn’t remember anything about it, just that I had enjoyed it. Trusting my own distant judgment, she borrowed it and then reported back that she had loved it too. So, when I started feeling blue recently, as discussed in my previous post, I figured that despite the long list of books waiting to be read for the first time, I would go back and see if a second read would perk me up.

It did.

This is the story of Edie Dudman, 21-year-old anxious mess who keeps trying to do so many different things that she ends up doing nothing at all. Armed with a part-time job in a bakery, a recently engaged flatmate, a boyfriend who doesn’t seem interested anymore and an elderly neighbour with bad body odour, she is ready to take on the world, attend some evening classes and finally do something with her life. Once she’s watched one more episode of Knots Landing.

Edie is one of nature’s worriers, fretting about absolutely everything and getting ahead of herself in all aspects of her life. She eventually manages to sign up to a photography evening class and there she meets Ralph, eccentric artist who wants to live in a water tank and might just be the right kind of man for her. But she clings to the notion that Steve, her current sort-of-boyfriend, will want to rekindle the magic, although it’s not looking promising as he’s just bought her a sandwich maker for her 21st birthday.

Despite her worries and constant habit of making mountains out of molehills (she rehearses conversations in her head and makes them appear bigger issues than they really are), she is fundamentally a good heart. Slightly lost and lonely, confused and not knowing what she wants in her life, she struggles on regardless. Her pains are familiar to many of us, who reach our early twenties and find that adulthood isn’t what we thought it was going to be, but there aren’t any refunds. It’s a funny book, but with serious, painful moments too – again, just like life, really.

The novel is made all the more adorable by constant doodles of the characters and events; particularly funny are the ones of Edie herself, who always seems to have a blank, shocked look on her face. The secondary characters are also brilliant, including Edie’s television addict mother, Lucille, the flatmate who has it all together, and Buster, Edie’s ex-boyfriend who still hangs around hoping that maybe something will happen again.

It’s a beautiful story of hope, awkwardness, love, growing up (sometimes against our will), bad birthdays and how life never goes the way you think it will. There are some wonderful comments about the difficulty with loving someone you don’t necessarily like, and it also stands out as being one of the few books I’ve read with a bisexual character who isn’t immediately shuttled into a gay or straight label, which is refreshing.

If you’ve ever felt lost or confused, then Edie Dudman is here to show you that you are most definitely not alone.