Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Questions About Humanity

Just finished Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel Never Let Me Go. I very much enjoyed Ishiguro's earlier novels, especially The Remains of the Day which I'd consider a classic of British fiction. (Ishiguro is British despite his name - his parents moved there from Japan when he was just five years old.) Then came When We Were Orphans which left me cold, and The Unconsoled which still sits unopened on my to-be-read-shelf.

Never Let Me Go is, superb. (I hot-tip it now for the Booker short-list - at least.)

The story is narrated by Kath who is a "carer" looking after those who are making "donations" before they finally "complete". We learn only gradually that Kath and her kind are clones, bred for their spare parts to provide medical cures for "normal" folks. But chilling as this scenario is, Ishiguro's novel is less science-fiction nightmare than an exploration of what makes us human.

Kath and her friends Ruth and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an idyllic boarding school deep in the countryside. (And the interestingly, the story appears to take place in the 1980's, and in a very recognisable England.) Much of the book charts the ups and downs of their relationships: the petty squabbles, the rivalries and generous doses of adolescent angst bringing home just how very human they are. But how far are the trio prepared to face the reality of their condition, as the evidence gradually falls into place?

Ishiguro of course has always made a speciality of self-deceiving and emotionally constipated narrators, and Kath is no exception - but this serves to make the true pathos of the story hit home even harder. And yes, I confess I cried at the end, which was a bit embarrassing because I was at the hairdressers at the time!

There's plenty of food for thought here. Developments in medical science and technology make it imperative that we don't shy away from debate about where we're going and whether we really want to go there. Writers like Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood (in "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Oryx and Crake") give us "what-ifs" to try on for size in a genre now come to be known as "speculative fiction".