Letting Go of the Past to Seize the Future

Three excellent works of fiction and one of non-fiction made up my reading over the last few weeks.

Issue 53, Monday 6 November 2023

My Reading

Some top-notch stuff over the last few weeks.

Completed Since Last Issue

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, and has been widely recognised for his writing, including being knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2018. One of his best-known novels, The Remains of the Day, won the Booker Prize in 1989 and was adapted into a well-regarded film featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The book I’m talking about today, Never Let Me Go, was a finalist for the Booker in 2005.

There’s no doubt that from a strictly technical point of view, Never Let Me Go is a work of science fiction, but I would argue that Ishiguro places its emphasis very differently than a genre author would. Though it does have a fascinating science-fictional concept, that concept is used to frame a deeply sad story of love and loss, and to point up the fundamental sin (as Terry Pratchett once put it) of treating people as things.

The story is set, we’re told, in England during the late 1990s. It’s narrated by Kathy H., a young woman working as a “carer”, which apparently involves looking after donors who have contributed organs for transplantation. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Kathy’s upbringing occurred at a boarding school called Hailsham. The majority of the novel focuses on her childhood experiences there and particularly on her relationships with her fellow students.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the plot, as that will take much too long to do well and give too much away. So I’ll just try to cover the essentials. A warning: I will have to give away a few spoilers, as it’s not possible to discuss the book intelligently without doing so. You should definitely read the book for yourself.

As her narrative proceeds, Kathy very slowly reveals information about Hailsham school that gradually makes us realise that there’s something very strange about it. For instance, teachers are referred to as “guardians”, there are no parents visiting, and the students have no homes outside of school. In fact, the children never leave the school. Despite these anomalies, Kathy retains fond memories and nostalgia for her time there, and for the close friendships she developed, particularly for a boy called Tommy and a girl called Ruth.

The students at Hailsham are taught from a very early age that their role in life once they leave school is to become firstly a carer and then a donor. Other occupations or experiences like travel are never going to be open to them. Nor, it seems, are they capable of having children, though they can have sex. However that is discouraged until they leave school.

Though there’s a great deal of fondness between Kathy and Tommy, it is in fact with Ruth that Tommy develops a romantic relationship, something Kathy accepts, but not without great sadness. The development and shifts in this triangular set of relationships is fundamental to the story.

Following their completion of secondary education, the students depart from Hailsham and reside on a farm for a couple of years before assuming their destined roles as carers.

A few years later, the story takes a melancholic turn as Ruth eventually becomes a donor, and Kathy becomes her carer, despite having numerous other donors under her care. After Ruth’s second donation, she “completes” which I take to mean that she dies and her entire body becomes available for transplantation. In her final days, she confesses to Kathy that she intentionally came between Kathy and Tommy to stop them being together.

Now, it is Tommy’s turn to become a donor. However, Kathy manages to arrange to be his carer, too, allowing them to finally establish a close and very loving relationship. But their love is doomed to be cut short, and they know it. By the nature of their existence, Tommy will keep donating until he, too, “completes” in the not-too-distant future.

In a doomed attempt to extend the period of their love, Kathy and Tommy manage to track down two adult women who had been at Hailsham, one of whom had been its headmistress. From them they learn exactly why Hailsham, and a few other similar institutions, had been set up, and that compared to some other young people like them, they had been very lucky in the conditions of their upbringing.

The book ends on a heartbreakingly sad note.

This is an extremely powerful piece of work, deeply moving and thought-provoking, fully deserving of the accolades it has received.

Highly recommended.

This was the first of Ishiguro’s books that I’ve read, and I’ll certainly be tracking down and reading the others.

The Conversion by Amanda Lohrey

Thanks to Text Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book.

I really enjoyed Amanda Lohrey’s previous novel, The Labyrinth, which won the Miles Franklin Award in 2021.

The Conversion has some similarities to her earlier novel. Both feature a middle-aged woman leaving her home in the city to seek solace in a rural setting, and both have traumas in their past: in the case of The Labyrinth, the protagonist has an adult son who has been convicted of negligent homicide and is in prison; in the case of The Conversion, Zoe is reacting to the death of her husband Nick a few months previously.

The Conversion is at heart about transformation, about seeking redemptive change in ourselves, and how that can come about from a transformation of place and circumstances. On the surface, The Conversion is about Zoe’s attempt to convert a deconsecrated church in a rural town into a living space, but of course it is just as much about her need to convert herself, free herself from the past and transform her own life.

As the story opens Zoe decides to purchase a church in a country town. It was Nick’s idea in the first place. Nick had been obsessed with the idea of buying it and converting it into a place to live. While he was alive, Zoe was sceptical of the idea, but after the shock of his death she feels compelled to give it a try.

The trouble is that churches aren’t designed as living places: there’s too much vertical space, and awkward placing of windows. In this particular church the windows are handsome examples of stained glass which Zoe can’t bear to destroy. Nevertheless, she sells her house in the city and moves into the church and tries to make a start. She finds the local people welcoming and supportive, and lands a job as a receptionist at the local hospital, though as a trained solicitor she is over-qualified for this role. She makes some early attempts to alter the church such as selling the baptismal font to a local tradesman, who intends to use it as a bird-bath.

The need for Zoe to undergo a personal transformation is tied up with her grief and anger about how her husband Nick came to die. Nick was a therapist, a psychologist. We learn through a series of flashbacks about his highly problematic involvement with one of his patients. This is an emotionally disturbed woman in her late teens or early twenties called Sophie, who keeps on turning up at Nick and Zoe’s house, leading to Zoe’s increasing anger and ultimately having a significant role in Nick’s premature death.

In her way, Zoe too had become obsessed with Sophie, and part of her need to sell her house was to get away from memories of the young woman’s too-frequent presence there and start afresh.

There are several other transformations in the book, which is all about change, both desired and undesired. There’s the local high school drama teacher Melanie, who stages a surrealist play in Zoe’s church during which Zoe experiences a disturbing vision which throws her off course. Melanie herself subsequently experiences a literal conversion and joins a religious group. There’s a natural event in the form of a grass fire which comes close to destroying the church.

As the book ends, though, Zoe’s changes reach a settling point as she comes to terms with both her past and her future.

I liked this a lot. Definitely recommended.

Blindness by José Saramago

José Saramago is a Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. This novel was published in 1995.

I listened to Blindness as an audiobook, based on a translation by Juan Sager. In some ways listening to it was very appropriate, as though I was a blind person in the novel being read the story aloud. But in others, I’m told, it was unfortunate. Here’s what my friend Chong had to say:

It’s a pity you are doing the Saramago as an audiobook. If you check out your library copy you’ll see part of its charm and beauty is in the way it is written—grammar is subverted and punctuation has been dispensed with—very disconcerting at first but perfectly conveys the surreal atmosphere of the situation…

I find that very interesting and would like to check it out, but sadly my library does not have a print copy of the book for me to look at, so I’ll have to take Chong’s word for it.

Like Never Let Me Go, discussed earlier, this book has a science-fictional concept but deals with that concept in a very different way than I think a genre author would do.

Here the concept is of a strange form of blindness which begins to afflict people in an unnamed city. It starts with a single person, the driver of a car, waiting at a stop light. The light turns green, but the car doesn't move. Annoyed drivers behind him blare their horns and then starting knocking at the car window, but the driver is screaming "I've gone blind! I've gone blind!". All he can see is a glowing white.

This form of blindness appears to be infectious, as after the man and his wife consult an ophthalmologist, other patients who were in the waiting room, and then the doctor himself, go blind the same way. Soon the authorities are panicking as the disease begins to spread. They impose draconian regulations including compulsory quarantine and begin rounding up not only the newly-blind, but anyone who has been in contact with them. These people will be confined in various secure buildings, such as an abandoned hospital for the mentally ill.

When the security people come for the doctor, his wife, realising she will be separated from him, suddenly calls out “I’m blind! I’m blind!” though in fact she still has her eyesight. This woman becomes a key character throughout the rest of the novel.

I say “this woman” here because Saramago uses another means of “conveying the surreal atmosphere” of the story, and that is that no character is ever given a name.

We're so remote from the world that any day now we shall no longer know who we are or even remember our names. And besides, what use would names be to us? No dog recognizes another dog or knows the others by the names they've been given. A dog is identified by its scent, and that's how it identifies others. Here we are like another breed of dogs. We know each other's bark or speech; as for the rest, features, colour of eyes or hair, they are of no importance.

They characters are just called “the first blind man”, “the girl with dark glasses”, “the boy with the squint”, and so on. “The doctor’s wife” miraculously retains her sight even though she is locked up with many other blind and presumably infectious people.

This is a very confronting book and many passages are difficult to read (or in my case, listen to). The conditions of those forced into quarantine haven’t been properly considered by the authorities, and their environment rapidly deteriorates. Food is only delivered sporadically, and in too small a quantity. Human excrement piles up as the toilet facilities can’t cope, or the blind people can’t find them. Hygiene breaks down. Such is the paranoia of the troops guarding the blind that they are trigger-happy, and mow down a group of the blind people who emerge from the entrance to the mental asylum, seeking food, despite strict orders not to do so. The blind people are ordered to take away and bury their dead themselves in an inner courtyard.

As in Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, this community of people who have been sundered from civilised society rapidly degenerates into something close to savagery, with the more powerful and better armed dominating the others and stealing resources such as food. The group associated with the doctor’s wife have a slight advantage because of her continued sight (which is kept secret) but still end up desperate and starving, and the women shockingly abused.

Ultimately however, although the book points up how fragile our civil society is, there is a hopeful note in the way the small group led by the doctor’s wife manage to hold together and support each other in order to survive. It’s a story of courage and hope in the face of appalling horror and oppression.

Though it’s not a book I would care to read a second time, it does prompt me to look for some others by this author.

The Internet Con by Cory Doctorow

Doctorow is a passionate advocate against the evils of exploitative capitalism and abusive monopolies, and this book summarises some of his recent writing. The subtitle “How to Seize the Means of Computation” of course deliberately references the Marxist imperative for workers to “seize the means of production”.

The book is a diatribe against the major tech companies and against the failure of governments to hold them to account. Doctorow points to the abject failure in the United States to enforce the anti-trust regulations which in the past restrained the growth of monopolies. He documents are considerable length the abuses which companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are able to get away with.

His solution is for governments to turn back to using those regulations and also to demand that companies implement what he calls “cooperative interoperability” to their offerings. Governments have the leverage to do this through the deals they make with companies that want to offer their services to government departments or the military.

I’m not sure that I am optimistic that this will happen, but at least it’s an arguable approach.

Though I liked this book, I find that Doctorow’s regular blog posts about the problems of monopoly capitalism and the process he has dubbed “Enshittification” are more interesting and pointed.

Currently Reading

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Another audiobook from Audible. I’ve only read a novella so far by Tchaikovsky (his Hugo-nominated Elder Race) but I liked that a lot. This book is considered to be one of his best, I gather, so I thought I would give it a try.

He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan

This is a sequel to this Australian author’s debut novel, She Who Became the Sun. I’ve only just started it, and found it so far not as compelling as the first book, which is probably understandable. Still, I’ll probably persevere.

Waiting on the Shelf

Loot by Tania James

Long-listed for the U.S. National Book Award, it looks very interesting. I’ve borrowed it from the library, though, and I doubt I’ll be able to get to it before it’s due back. Unless I put He Who Drowned the World aside for a while and tackle this first. Hmmm, might do that.

You can support me by buying me a coffee.

And that’s another issue of Through the Biblioscope in the can. See you next time!

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