I read THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, and was blown away by how spot-on the English butler felt, so I picked this up, having no idea what it was about. It took me a good half a chapter before I realized there was anything science-fiction or dystopian about it.
The main character is Kathy, who is a carer, and keeps running into her old friends from the boarding school they went to called Halisham or Hailsham, or something English and hard to pronounce. After the initial scene, where there are hints of Kathy’s adult life, the book goes back to the time they spent at this boarding school, then moves to when they graduated and went to “The Cottages” and then when she became a carer.
Ishiguro doesn’t tell you what a carer is, or a donor, but the story is peppered with strangeness and vague hints. The children are all strongly encouraged to do art and poetry, and if anything is very well done, it’s taken away by “Madame” to “the gallery” and never seen again. They’re never told why they are encouraged to spend so much effort on art, or why none of them will have children, or why they are forbidden from even thinking about smoking cigarettes.
One thing that Ishiguro does well here is capture the kind of micro-dramas that loom so large in a young person’s world. Ruth is mad at Kathy because Kathy said something to prove that Kathy didn’t believe Ruth’s lie about the pencil case having been a gift from Miss Geraldine. It’s so pointless, and yet if you’re eleven or twelve, this sort of thing can be huge. He does it well, and believably except that Kathy is a little more self-aware of the undertones of the emotional landscape in a conscious manner than I think most girls would be. That is, a socially-adept girl would know what to say and sometimes know why she had said the wrong thing, but she wouldn’t be able to explain why. Tommy seems the most accurate because he’s so clueless compared to the others. He comes across as a quite stupid boy with emotional issues, prone to throwing fits.
The other thing he does really well is the micro-tension. Nearly every chapter has Kathy telling about some event or another, then leading with “but that didn’t happen the way I expected, because of the chess incident” for example. And then even though the event wasn’t all that interesting, the question of what the chess event was is mystery enough to make me want to keep reading. This is how Ishiguro got me interested in the lives of people who were actually quite simple and dull.
The characters didn’t really feel English to me. I kept imagining a studio Ghibli film because they felt quite Japanese, especially at first. It was the incident with Tommy that did it. Tommy is mocked by the other students, and teased because he’s not good at art, and the teachers “guardians” place a high value on art. When I was in grammar school, boys who didn’t get good grades or who didn’t follow the teacher’s rules were not socially punished for their rebellion against authority. The characters seem to be equally passive and socially aware in the sense of being hyper-aware of the relationships between them. Also, Kathy felt like the sappy-sweet heroine of a Ghibli film, like in Whispers of the Heart, or Up on Poppy Hill where she’s so devoted and caregiving and overly concerned about the feelings of others that she feels like someone else’s fantasy girl rather than a real person. But this is a small complaint, and her passive and obedient personality, all of their passivity and obedience, makes the next part fall in line.
I was talking to my father about this book, and he disdained it because he didn’t think the [awful plot twist which I won’t discuss because of spoilers] was at all plausible, and I disagree. I think it was stunningly possible. It’s just that in most dystopian fictions, the seventeen year old heroine would come at the injustice of society with a modern woman’s eye, and she would rail against it just as the reader would, completely overthrowing the society in the process.
But these children are raised knowing what their lives are going to be like. They dream about different lives, just as poor black kids in the projects dream about being basketball stars or famous rappers or astronauts, but the means are not within their grasp to attain it. Doing anything but what they were raised to do is as impossible for them as for a poor Irish girl born in 1900 to aspire to anything higher than having babies until she died.
My father says it’s implausible that they would be allowed out in society, among other people, where they could presumably tell others that just because they were clones didn’t mean they deserved to die young by donating their organs. I disagree. In this society, it’s explicitly stated that people know that the clones are treated poorly but that the value of replacement human organs is too great a prize to give up. It’s like factory farmed meat. We know that both humans and beasts are treated under hellious conditions to make that cheap chicken, but we like cheap meat enough to turn the other way. END SPOILER
So, what I liked about this most of all was that it was different. It has a different type of dystopian world, with a Sansa Stark kind of heroine rather than an Arya Stark kind of heroine. They know it is cruel and unjust, and they vainly try to get some reprieve based on rumors of what is possible, rushing whole-heartedly towards impossible dreams. In the end, the heroism is not about picking up a gun or a sword and fighting against tyranny, but the quiet gaman-shiru of suffering quietly and accepting a fate with as much dignity as possible. It’s not a feel-good book, but it will make you think.