[Book Review] Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I get a lot of my reading done on my morning commutes, and it has been a while since I have read a book that makes me want to defenestrate myself from a moving vehicle. This book was one of those.

But firstly, let’s get the plot out of the way.

Never Let Me Go is a book narrated by one Kathy H., a 31 year old woman who has been a “carer” for “donors” for almost 11 years. This introduction of Kathy is graciously done in the first two pages of the book, and so one has a fairly good idea what the book is about from the get go.

We are introduced to Kathy’s back story and her two close friends ,Tommy and Ruth, growing up in a special school known as Hailsham and later transiting to fulfil their life’s purpose. As it turns out, Hailsham is one of the centres for cloned children in the country, who are brought up for the sole purpose of making organ donations upon the completion of their training. Before the donations, however, the clones become carers for other donors, which I suppose is meant to create a self-sustenance for the system.

Cool story, right?

Wrong.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

The writing: At first I found Kathy’s narration to be too fragile, like you would speak to a friend to whom you’re about to break terrible news. Except the foreplay doesn’t materialise into the grand becoming. For a premise that is so dark, I expected the narration to be utterly brutal, gory and pained. Instead, I found it shy and sentimental. A bit later into the book, there arose acute elements of circuitousness, where Kathy would magnify insignificant and inconsequential details of her experiences, moving back and forth back and forth ad nauseum. To me, a majority of the chapter conclusions sounded something like this;

That moment wasn’t significant because of what I just told you for the last few pages, it was because of what happened a few minutes before and a few days after

Rinse, Repeat.

The Story: Perhaps because I haven’t read much dystopian fiction,  I naturally found the story to be highly original. However, and this is important, the book feels like it doesn’t care about its own premise. It skirts around it all through, pages crawling with anecdotes about Kathy, Tom and Ruth’s friendships. Which is alright if well augmented with everything else, but even then Kazuo struggled to make Ruth likeable. She was antagonistic and sour and I just didn’t buy it that her friendship with Kathy and Tommy was founded on care for each other. In my opinion, the book’s misguided focus came in the way of its answering basic questions about the story and the characters, not to mention that the lingering on the characters’ love triangle for pages and pages was unnecessary.

Overall, I struggle to point out anything I particularly liked about the book. Not the tone, not the writing, not the execution of the story. Merely thoroughly underwhelming blurbs.

Rating: 2/5

[Book Review] Disgrace by J.M Coetzee

I finished Disgrace over a week ago, and has since been at pains to write how I feel about it. For one, reading this book felt like self-flagellation.

Twice-divorced, David Lurie is a Professor of Communications and Poetry at the University of Capetown in South Africa during apartheid. While he does not particularly have any respect for his job, he goes through the obligatory motions, don’t we all sometimes? His personal life does not ooze or inspire much excitement either; he has paid sex once a week and spends his free time struggling to interrogate the works of famous poets. Until he has a chance meeting with a girl who is also a student of his, and his life noticeably changes. For a while, everything revolves around this girl, and they have a whirlwind sexual relationship [that I found to be deeply disturbing]. But in the hastiness in which this book unravels, this relationship quickly comes to an anticlimactic end, with the girl filing sexual harassment charges against David. And as is often the nature of these things, his misfortune quickly unfolds into a public spectacle, which forces David to resign from his position at the university, in lieu of a public admission of guilt.

Following this ignominious end to his career,David heads to his daughter’s farm in Grahamstown. It’s a good hideout, no one knows him here, or even remotely appreciates his intellectual capacity. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, is dry but functional. Life is boring, but he gets by. Until one day he and his daughter are victims of a gory attack, and things quickly come to a head. His relationship with Lucy strains, then bitterly sours, and towards the end [of the book], there is a series of bizarre events and decisions-better experienced inside the pages-which are hard to move on from.

This book is brilliantly written. The poetic references especially make even the errant sentences sound important, well thought out,consequential. And at the same time, I felt like some of the pages had that coarse first-draft feeling about them. Raw.I found this nothing if not refreshing.

But I did say it felt like self-flagellation, especially in the days after I finished it. For instance, why did J.M Coetzee write Lucy to be such a complex character, with a decision system that is so hard to understand? Why did he arbitrarily bring up the prospect of a same-sex relationship, and then promptly abandon its pursuit? A relationship, by the way, that I so desperately wanted to see developed. More importantly, why did he, a white man as far as I can tell, decide to write his black characters as he did? Was it in a mere pursuit of a story, or was he deliberately provoking some thought?

Overall, this is a book I am keen to recommend. It is the first of 2017 that made me curse out, shed tears and want to rip it apart. Only in a span of a few pages.Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

[Book Review] Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

My first encounter with this book happened to be on twitter in August 2016 after someone mentioned it in passing. For a moment I mused on what an odd title it has,but without thinking twice I moved along. After all, what is a millennial without digital haste?

The second time was at my usual book stand along Moi Avenue, where my book guy, Peter, gave me quite the marketing performance on the book.

At this point I bit, I bought it.

The book is a memoir of a grown up Lucy Grealy, who at only 9 years old was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a potentially terminal form of Cancer. As a result of this illness, a third of Lucy’s jaw was removed so as to manage the disease, and subsequently Lucy went through 2 and a half years of devastating (and told in painstaking detail) bouts of chemotherapy.

While the chemo is an enormous source of pain for Lucy though, the book is Lucy taking the reader on an aesthetic journey of her face. Throughout her life, Lucy went through upwards of 30 surgeries to “rectify” her face, but every time her body swallowed itself in, consuming all grafts and treatments to revert to its most disfigured form. Lucy goes through particularly demeaning mockery in school on account of this disfigurement, and even in adulthood, she narrates gruelling experiences of being utterly humiliated and called ugly, her internal struggles with prospects of finding love despite her physical appearance and her journey through finding solace in poetry and solitude. Often, Lucy had to imagine parallel realities where life could be much worse, so as to feel better, which for the reader is more than heartbreaking, it’s immobilising. With Lucy we travel from Ireland to New York to Berlin to London to Scotland, looking to belong, looking for a semblance of normalcy in its most vane and literal sense.

I have read books about Cancer, but this is not about Cancer. The Cancer is only the means to the lense through which Lucy comes face to face with the concepts of beauty, of belonging, of acceptance, of love and how all these wonderful, complex and profound things can be inexplicably linked to how we quantify our sense of worth, and how others assess our potential to be worthy of these things.

Autobiography of a Face is incredibly well written, and on the first pages I found myself giggling quite a lot despite the heaviness of the subject matter. It is told with a great sense of wit, and sentimentality when it calls for it. It’s raw and honest, and therefore beautiful. This aptly titled book is an exquisite mirror into the innocence of children, a source of important questions and at the end simply a hauntingly beautiful memoir.

 

Rating: 4/5