From Pity to Awe

Months ago I picked up Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro at the library. I read the first chapter before bed one night and got really, really confused. I wasn’t expecting a sci-fi-esque book and I didn’t have the patience or energy to figure out what the heck this narrator was talking about. So, I put it down in favor of the book club selections I was “required” to read.

Last week, when I finally went back to Ishiguro’s book I had a very different response.

The second time around, from page one; I could not put the novel down. I devoured it in just a few days (yes, yes, I know I'm a sloooooooooooooooooow reader). I was immediately drawn to the conversational tone of the narrator. Kathy is such a tease, pulling you through the book with bits and pieces of what is to come. Her constant hinting at what she assumes we already fully understand is a brilliant way of involving her reader in the mysterious goings on.

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And there is plenty of mystery of Never Let Me Go. Here, I won’t spoil that mystery for those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading this brilliant novel.

{This next semi-ambiguous paragraph is for those who have read it… if you haven’t skip on down to, “Welcome back”}

Politics aside, this reader couldn’t help but question the ethics of the treatment of these students. But, I agree with Ishiguro when he says that there are much more interesting questions in Never Let Me Go than the obvious ones. For me, the most glaring sadness of the novel was the quiet acceptance with which the students marched toward their fate. As I read the novel, my heart broke over and over again. In discussing the book with a friend, we wondered, “Why didn’t they just run away?” I looked at their willing participation and acceptance as weakness. I pitied them. But as I write this review, I find my perspective changing for two simple reasons. First, the inevitability of the students’ futures didn’t keep them from investing in relationships, enjoying their surroundings and embracing creativity. And second, their unfair lot in life didn’t keep them from nobly fulfilling their purpose. Perhaps they were fortunate to have never known any other option. This ignorance allowed the students to escape feelings of entitlement. None lived life echoing, “It isn’t fair.” None suffered from that crippling “more, more, more” disease I find myself falling victim to so often. Suddenly my perspective on the novel and these characters has changed. I no longer pity them. Now I'm in awe of their selfless sacrifice. Perhaps it’s a different side to the same coin, but instead of feeling sad for them I want to live my life more like they do. (Alright I'm bringing those who haven’t read it back in.)

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Welcome back to all of you who haven’t read the book. In case you’d like to skip the reading all together (which I DO NOT suggest) and instead just head to Redbox, I'm happy to report that I’ve also seen the movie recently. (As a side note, I think I’ve decided to try and read only books with movie adaptations. I'm doing this strictly so that I can sound like a hipster and I say, “Oh, man the book was so much better.”) While there were some minor (in my opinion) changes to the story and perhaps a slight reinterpretation of the “message” of the novel, all in all the film was really great. Directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) the film was visually quite beautiful. Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, who played two of the film’s three main characters, were particularly good. And the screenwriter Alex Garland, who also wrote one of my favorite books, The Beach, did a commendable job of translating Ishiguro’s story into a film script. Perhaps after having his own novel butchered for the screen he was particularly careful to preserve the integrity of the novel. Like most film adaptations, much had to be dropped in order to keep the movie at a tolerable length (I assume). But Garland managed to protect the beauty of the novel without chopping it to bits. And though the film’s final scene raises a question never touched upon in my reading of the novel, it wasn’t so far out of left field that it seemed out of place. In fact, it opened a whole new avenue of reflection for me.

I anticipate that both this novel and the film will be pieces that I carry with me for some time. Pregnant with ethical questions and memorable examples of great story-telling, both the novel Never Let Me Go and its film adaptation will have me chewing on their messages well into the future. I enthusiastically recommend both!

Your turn! Have you read it? Have you seen it?
Sooo, tell me what you thought!