Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go follows a group of students growing up at a school called Hailsham. None of the students come from or have traditional families… so they grow up among their peers and the Guardians of the seemingly idyllic institution.  As Kathy H tells her story, we begin to learn that these students are somewhat different to ‘normal’ children. One of the Guardians, Miss Lucy, decides to abandon the rules and tells them the truth about their existence. They are fifteen years old when they realise their destiny has been set for them; their role in the world has already been determined. The students accept their fate and embrace the system in which they are part of and go about their lives until they are called up. Meanwhile, a rumour shadows their adolescence – and this idea follows them into adulthood. They begin to let themselves believe that there might be a temporary way out of their future and they pursue this welcome legend until the bitter end.

Never Let Me Go is a chilling story about people as machines and the predetermined path we often wind up following. Ishiguro’s novel is charged with anguish and tension, and with each page turned we are reminded of the vulnerability and fragility of life. Never Let Me Go asks piercing questions about humanity and about the role of the individual in society. Ishiguro holds up a dark mirror to the world and reflected back is a terrifying, dystopian reality. By the last page, you’ll go one of two ways – either your heart will break or your anger will surface. 

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Sir Terry Pratchett and Friends

City Reads marks my first taste of Brighton’s cultural life. And what better introduction than Sir Terry Pratchett – a living literary legend who walks both the Disc and sphere worlds. The crowd seeps in to a flurry of fiddles and an accordion. Men and women representing all generations, from all walks of life filter in and, as the auditorium fills (to the brim, I might add), you can sense the electricity in our expectation.

In struts Terry, to an enthusiastic and heartfelt applause, sporting a black cowboy hat and looking very dapper in a navy and white pinstriped suit jacked. The ‘…and friends’ which accompany the author on stage are Rob Wilkins and Rod Brown from production company, Narrativia.

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So where does he get his wonderful ideas from and how does his brilliant mind work? I’m sorry but I can’t tell you. For aspiring writers looking for guidance, I know that’s a kick in the guts – but for Terry, his characters ‘just turn up’. He sits and doodles in his head and as he begins to carve out a good story in his imagination, he knows words will follow. Where does the magic come from? He doesn’t know. But he talks about the ‘dark mirror’ in his mind; the kaleidoscope-esque looking glass which allows him to turn the inspiration of real life into an array of miraculous imaginings.

Sir Terry once described the writing process as follows;

“it’s like you’ve got a hand-glider on your back, and you’re looking out to the horizon, you can see where you’ve got to go, and as you run down the hill, and as the wind whips your hair and lifts your wings, up you soar into free flight…”

Aside from those brief summaries, the flow of the conversation is pretty hard to keep up with; it chops and changes direction with every other sentence. The talk meanders around various points of focus. The unruly interview style perhaps reflects the fact that the interviewee in question possesses an incredible imagination, one which cannot (and shouldn’t ever) be tamed.

As one might expect, there are a few plugs hidden in the otherwise obscure content of the talk, but the trio do reveal a few secrets that will no doubt appeal to the Pratchett-fanatics out there (and did appeal to the ones within the Dome – there were lots of ‘whoops’). We got to hear an exclusive reading of his new novel ‘Raising Steam’ due for release in November. And when the ‘in conversation with’ turned more into a production meeting, subsequently and accidentally transforming us into flies in the aisles, we discovered that Narrativia are currentlydeveloping Dodger. So keep an eye out! And – because I know there will be a lot of you out there that care – how is he?

“I’m happy and I’m going to keep on going… I’m just gonna keep going until a certain someone turns up… I have no fear of dying. And when you have no fear of dying, the world is your mollusc…”

As one member of the audience cried out – “Terry Pratchett, we love you!”. Sir TP is well loved and that was certainly evident in both the reception as he walked on stage and the standing ovation which closed the event.

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The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

A nameless narrator talks us through the Time Traveller’s account of his adventures in the year 802,701 A.D.

Surrounded by a bunch of cynical dinner guests, the Time Traveller explains that time is a fourth dimension that can ultimately be manipulated and explored. He presents a miniature model of a Time Machine but the dinner guests are somewhat sceptical and distrusting. The following week, the guests re-group to discover a bedraggled looking Time Traveller, whom has just returned from the future. Upon composing himself, the roughed-up adventurer tells them of his various discoveries. The new world he stumbled upon had undergone a major transformation – specifically, humans had evolved into a new race of elf-like adults with an air of childhood innocence called the Eloi.

There are no industries or careers in 802,701 A.D. and the spectrum of human emotions – such as love and hate – no longer drive the soul. The Eloi all wear the same clothes, they all eat the same food; incidentally they are all vegetarians, blandly surviving on the fruits of the land. In this new realm of existence, individuality isn’t encouraged or celebrated. A lack of curiosity, need and desire seems to be responsible for this peaceful [and suggested ‘communist’] community. There is little for them to feel passionate about; hence, there is no war, no greed, no anger or hate. Strength and intellect is not required here, as there is no need to practice and develop man’s survival instinct in a utopian society.

English is a long forgotten language and they barely make the effort to communicate with the old-world-er in their midst. Shortly after arrival, the time machine goes missing and the Time Traveller soon discovers it has been stolen by the underworld race; the mangled Morlocks.

During his tale, the Time Traveller hypothesises that in the past world the Morlocks would have been those working-classes who spent their days mining in darkness. Under the control of the decadent elite – the Eloi – the presumed inferior human race grew to adapt to their enforced lifestyle. But in this future state, the tables have turned and karma has caught up, and in this new reality the Morlocks feed on the frail and ill-fated Eloi.

This science-fiction novella is written as a narration-within-a-narration; and subsequently it’s quite wordy and long-winded. In my view, the story only picks up when fear is introduced. This tale offers commentary on the inner workings of the human psyche, but it also embodies political undertones, no doubt spurred by the state of late Victorian England. Wells warns us that if things continue the way they are, the world will head into a troubled future – a terrifying dystopia. His novella suggests that current society change its ways or else…

For a short book, this is a meaty read. And definitely offers food for thought. Pretty scary too. ** Shudders ** 

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.’

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita still manages to raise eyebrows despite belonging to the literary world for over half a century. Then again, perhaps paedophilia and statutory rape are timeless taboos – especially when approached with finesse, a raw sense of humour and a poetic flair. I never thought I’d chuckle along to such sordid and morbid affairs, but I am not the only one to admit that poor, doomed Humbert Humbert’s tale is perversely fascinating.

So what’s it about?

Middle-aged Humbert Humbert likes little girls… whom he fondly dubs ‘nymphets’. The catalyst for such dangerous longing stemmed from an unconsummated love with childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh. Decades later, HH finds the perfect object of transference; the plain yet feisty nymphet, Dolores Haze – aka, Lolita. His obsession for the twelve year old grows and spills over into the shadier side of his psyche, the murkier muck of his mind. Needless to say; their journey together is a rather bumpy one.

Narrated in the first person, we hear this story from the man himself (or the monster, the madman, the poet, the academic – take your pick). Humbert Humbert dazzles us with his intellect and charms us with his excessive and sophisticated vocabulary which is finely tuned to conceal the harrowing filth lurking in the depths of his memoir. We know the personal narration is unreliable and yet this sophisticated academic still sucks us in and forces us to take residency in his warped mind among his darkest delusions. His charisma gently lulls you into a moral and ethical trance and you’ll unwillingly follow his journey, blinkered by his bright brilliance.

 My thoughts?

Well, I loved it to start with. I enjoyed the way the words worked on my mind and one can savour and revel in the richness of the literary realm Humbert Humbert conjures with every sentence. But there comes a point where enough is enough. For a start, there’s too much French in it. And it’s too time-consuming to Google translate every French phrase. Yes, the integration of language is no doubt a reminder that HH is ever so well-educated (and perhaps a reminder that Nabokov is too), but it’s rather irritating. Also, I had to look up a handful of very tricky words on more than one occasion. Tiring.

I read for a combination of pleasure and stimulation – but when the scales tip and I’m made to feel like an idiot, I do NOT enjoy. There’s only so much linguist trickery the average brain can handle (and yes, I’m confessing to an average brain, a typical mind, a standard level of intelligence, an OK IQ). My cerebral cortex started dribbling out of my ears by page 250. Not bad going, I guess, but the last chunk was a massive effort. I nearly pulled the plug. But I persevered… hurrah.

I’m pleased I’ve read it; it’s definitely a must-read for those interested in literature and all its glory. I owe Nabokov a debt of gratitude for kicking my lazy vocabulary up the arse. I shall endeavour to use some of these newly learned gems in everyday speech… probably to the horror of my friends and colleagues. It was an experience… but I’m glad it’s over.  

The Great Gatsby

Since my favourite Hollywood star is currently gracing our screens once again (Leo, I love you), I figured I’d read the book prior to Baz Luhrmann’s visual spectacle. (Good job too – the film critics aren’t exactly raving about it).

The Great Gatsby is a 1920s American gentleman’s tale of a love lost and found… and lost again. Set in the jazz era, Nick Carraway’s narration talks us through the twists and turns of romantic rendezvous, the peaks and troughs of secret shenanigans, and the highs and lows of that age ole battle: head versus heart. The story, which predominantly focuses on the Great Mr Gatsby himself and his tainted love, also zooms in and out on that huge, flashing neon question mark sign that dangles precariously over society, namely ‘moral values’. Chuck in some good old obsession, materialism, greed… oh and a sprinkling of lust, love and heartbreak for good measure… and you can see why this classic fell into the canon of [apparently] timeless American literature.

Now onto my actual thoughts:

It took me a good chunk of the book to become genuinely interested in Carraway’s account of events. In fact, sadly it was the final two chapters that only really aroused my curiosity and engagement. But who am I to judge and criticise a classic? Ah hem. Ok, regardless of who I am and the limited rights I possess, here goes…

Gatsby didn’t grab me for the following reasons:

–          Despite the depth of the symbolism, very little happens.

–          Despite the successful evocation of the jazz era, the writing isn’t particularly engaging.

–          I felt very little empathy for the characters and didn’t so much as draw breath or blink off-rhythm when I learned of their demise.

–          It was a bit… well… boring. (There I said it).

Saying that, here’s what I did like:

–          The visual references to social trends (both gloomy and gallant) and the dwindling American dream capture the era and the attitude. In this respect, it’s incredibly well written and the text surges with symbolism.

–          I appreciate the subtle characterisation of the gold-diggers and social climbers crammed within its pages… Fitzgerald avoids stereotypes and thus builds multidimensional and ‘deep’ characters.

–          Through that virtue I’m often told to embrace – “patience” – one can step into a time warp and float back to a period of gents, jazz & liquor, and quite a bit of razzle-dazzle.

Wonder what we’ll all think of the film… 

Shantaram: a beautifully told heart-aching and extraordinary story.

“Every human heartbeat is a universe of possibilities.”

Roberts’ extraordinary adventure begins when he escapes from an Australian prison in the early 80s and skedaddles to Bombay. His long-term residency at the India Guesthouse and partnership with the charmingly chirpy Indian tour guide, Prabaker, enables the newly dubbed “Linbaba” to immerse himself in the culture and learn the ropes. A truly beautiful friendship blossoms between the two men, and Lin joins Prabaker in Sunder Village for a spell of six months to further his education of the Indian way of life. Bidding farewell to the village, he winds up in the Colaba Hutments. As a slum-dweller in the Zhopadpatis, Lin sets up a free health clinic and spends his days there helping anyone who comes a’knocking. Thanks to his inner social circle, Lin experiences various culture shocks and wonders, such as the `Standing Babas’, the `Blind Singers’, Kano the Bear, and black market dealings via a congregation of Lepers. He soon becomes accustomed to the Bombay underground. Abdul Khader Khan becomes the father he never had and the bond cements his initiation into the Mafia. Having done everything from acting in Bollywood to a torture spell in the Arthur Road lock up, Lin then ends up in Afghanistan, fighting with the Mujahedeen against the Russians; finally learning that “sometimes you have to surrender before you win”. 

Shantaram is a beautifully told heart-aching and extraordinary story. Simply put; Roberts is a storytelling genius. The writing is powerful and gripping. You’ll get though the nine hundred pages in no time at all. It’s one of those books where you start reading and the next minute it’s three in the morning. Follow the twists and turns of this real life story; this honest account of a soul searching journey is one you won’t have heard before, and you’ll understand a little more about making “the wrong decision for the right reasons”, and vice versa. With every page turned, you’ll experience the light and the darkness of this man’s life. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry.

Shantaram paints a picture of various societies, and colours these cultures several shades darker; you can practically taste the Indian air. Human emotions are unapologetically explored to the full and there is a willing sense of multidimensionality to every message conveyed, and every theme communicated. There’s no such thing as `black and white’ in this book, no easy escapes, no option to be lazy. Roberts digs deeper into the realms of being most of us are unfamiliar with and unashamedly exposes the raw truth; the good, the bad, the ugly, the unfathomable – and all facets and complexities of the human heart. By all means, it is a love story, but one that breaks convention. The lyricism in the language boldly communicates the themes of love, loss, redemption, faith, truth and humanity. 

Despite the suffering and hardship, Lin’s adventure has sparked a flame of longing within me to go travelling and to experience everything life has to offer (within reason – I’ll pass on the torture). One can only learn a lesson if one is part of the class after all. You can’t look in from the periphery and expect to understand the inevitable epiphanies these individuals experience. You can’t learn life’s lessons from a distance. Saying that, Shantaram will definitely open your mind, prod at your heart, and awaken your soul.