Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Margaret Atwood says Never Let Me Go is “a brilliantly executed book by a master craftsman who has chosen a difficult subject: ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.”

The Undependent (UK) called it “an exquisitely nuanced, and extremely moving process of revelation. Never Let Me Go is a novel about love and goodness and the hopes and fears of the human heart.”

Time Magazine named it one of the greatest 100 novels since 1923.

Ishiguro’s novel tells the story of Kath, Ruth and Tommy three students at an exclusive English boarding school called Hailsham. There is something odd about Hailsham and the reader comes to undertsand its secrets at just about the same time as the story’s main characters. It’s actually quite difficult to say any more without giving away plot points which are essential to the novel.

Despite the fact that there is a sense of urgency to understand just what is going on at the school, Never Let Me Go is not a mystery story. Ishiguro does a great job of stringing the reader along, sure, but the true genious of this novel is what he says about hope where there can be none and love where there shouldn’t be. And despite the fact that it does tackle larger issues- of morality and the consequences of science- the novel is also about these three friends, their triangular love affair and their hopes and dreams for the future.

It’s a remarkable novel.

But I didn’t like it very much.

I found it somehow disorganized- the narrative was choppy. The novel’s climax was mainly expository. The novel’s themes are reiterated by a secondary character. I wanted to care for Kath and Tommy and Ruth- and I did- but I wanted to care more, I guess. Still- the final scene of the novel is haunting and if the novel were to be held up as an example of the extremes (both the cruelty and kindness) of mankind- I’m sure you’d be hard pressed to find a book that does it better than this one.

So, I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, but I wouldn’t hesitate in saying that it is worth reading.

The Reunion by Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman is an adjunct Professor of Humanities, Creative Writing, and Physics at MIT. Of his novel Reunion the New York Times Book Review said: “Elegant…spare, economical and charged with meaning.”

I’m going to be honest: I am a sucker for this kind of book – lost love, longing, a trip to the past. So I would have thought that Reunion would be right up my alley because it has all the ingredients necessary to punch me in the gut.

Charles is professor at a small college. He’s divorced and the father of a grown daughter. We meet him as he is about to return to his Alma Mater for his 30th reunion. It is here that Charles is catapulted back into his past to relive his first love-affair, with a ballerina named Juliana. His past doesn’t rise up to meet him in the flesh. Instead, while gazing into a model of the college campus as it once was, Charles has a sort of complicated hallucination where he relives the whole affair and struggles to reconcile the memory with the reality of it.

On some levels the book really worked for me.

Young people explode with their discovery of the world and the newness of life…What young people don’t realize is that so much is happening for the last time as well. The world is both opening and closing at once.

I understood this. I felt tremendous empathy for Charles as he came to terms with the knowledge that he couldn’t go back and recapture those first, fleeting moments of love or be the person that he was then.

And while Lightman is a gifted writer, I think it’s the scientist in him that kept me from fully engaging in the book. There were sections of the book that bored me – a lot of the first 50 pages or so- but when Charles was fully sucked into his past, reliving his love affair with the enigmatic, Juliana, I went with him gladly, even though I knew it would not end well.

The End of Alice by A.M. Homes

I haven’t read a book this creepy, violent, or disturbing in a long time. A.M. Homes is, quite possibly, the most fearless writer I have ever read and The End of Alice is a book that is both horrifying and beautiful. Beautifully written, that is, because there isn’t a character in this novel that is particularly sympathetic.

The novel is narrated by an unnamed incarcerated pedophile. He begins a correspondence with a nineteen year old girl- also unnamed- who writes him the details of her growing obsession with a twelve year old boy.

That’s the book in a nutshell. The old pedophile and the pedophile-to-be exchange letters (although not in the traditional sense) and reveal their dirty deeds bit by bit, culminating in a retelling of the old guy’s crime: the end of Alice.

All the characters are reprehensible: the pedophile’s mother, the young boy’s father. Even the so-called victims are less innocent than you might think they are. As each crime is revealed you think it will help you understand how it shaped the person…but really it just adds to the feeling of itchy voyeurism. And since one guy is in jail, there’s a lot of graphic male/male sex.

So- do I recommend this book? It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. Is it well-written? Certainly. Could I stop reading despite the high gross-out factor? No. Whether it says something valuable or useful about the state-of-the-world, I don’t know.

The Deadly Space Between by Patricia Duncker

Here’s a funny thing: I liked this book, but I don’t have a freakin’ clue what it’s about. Well, I sort of know that it’s about a well-regarded artist Isobel (Iso) and her 18 year old son, Toby. When Iso takes a lover, the enigmatic Roehm, Toby’s life is thrown into a tailspin. But The Deadly Space Between is not a straight forward tale by any stretch.

First of all, only 15 years separate Iso and her son and their relationship is complicated and sexually charged. The story is narrated by Toby and it’s difficult to know how reliable his observations are: Are his memories exaggerated? Is Roehm as other-worldly as he seems?

Roehm is a mysterious character, that’s for sure. Seen through Toby’s eyes he is huge, white and powerful; much like the monolithic winterscapes his mother is currently painting. Roehm’s arrival unbalances Toby’s relationship with his mother- which is clearly too insular- and even though the only information we get about Roehm is skewed through Toby’s eyes, his mysterious presence is what propels the novel through to its strangely unsettling conclusion.

The Way the Family Got Away by Michael Kimball

Critics loved this book. For example, Angus Wolfe Murray from ‘The Scotsman’ said: ‘Occasionally a novel by a new writer will cause critics to choke with excitement. This is one.’

For me, though, the style got in the way of the story which is too bad because the story was kinda sad.

A family (mother, father, boy and girl) set off in their car from Mineola, Texas to Gaylord. They have all their worldly possessions in that car, including the body of the infant they lost to yellow fever. As they travel they sell/exchange their things in exchange for gas. They are going to Bompa’s house (one can assume this is a grandparent).

What makes this story odd (and I guess critics would say amazing) is that the story’s narrators are the two remaining children,  both of them very young.

“My brother’s fever wouldn’t leave him or our house,” the little boy says.

His sister says: “The sun-color got too bright and too inside and under my little brother’s skin until it burned his insides out inside his crib.”

What follows is a strange narration which flips between the brother and sister as their parents navigate their way from town to town in an effort to escape their grief.

I think your enjoyment of the novel will depend on your willingness to fall into the strange rhythm of their language.

For me, it just didn’t work. And I hate it when a book makes me feel as though I didn’t get it. Like- if I was smarter this would make sense and I could jump on the bandwagon with all the smart critics…one of whom actually said “you can’t read if you can’t read this book.”

I can read the words, thanks. They just didn’t move me.

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I had a difficult time finding it. I finally happened upon it at a second-hand book store. It’s a short book, only 159 pages, but it took forever to read because Lessing writes dense, intense prose. Every single word counts.

About The Fifth Child, Newsday said: “I’d be willing to wager that if she never wrote another word, it would be The Fifth Child– and not, say, her famous The Golden Notebook– that ultimately confirmed Lessing’s stature as a writer.”

Harriet and David meet at a party, fall in love, buy a house that is too big for them and immediately start to fill it up with children. Theirs is a seemingly happy family- extended at holidays with parents and siblings and over the years more children. Each of Harriet’s first four pregnancies are without difficulty. She seems one of those natural mothers, perfectly content to waddle around feeding whoever happens to be sitting around the table, doting and content.

But then she gets pregnant for the fifth time. Understandably, with four small children to cope with, Harriet is upset by this unexpected pregnancy- but it is more than that.

…she could not sleep or rest because of the energy of the foetus, which seemed to be trying to tear its way out of her stomach.

“Just look at that,” she said as her stomach heaved up, convulsed, subsided. “Five months.

The arrival of the fifth child, Ben, throws the Lovatt family into turmoil. The aftermath of his birth, his otherworldliness and Hariett’s attempts to cope make up the remainder of this book.

I can’t say that I loved The Fifth Child. As a mother, I certainly understood Harriet’s feelings, first of antipathy, later of remorse and finally of acceptance does get under your skin- but Lessing writes from a sort of detatched point of view and I never felt completely settled in Harriet’s world. Or maybe that was the point.