Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a compelling portrait of people on the downside of a dystopia. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or J G Ballard’s Kingdom Come, Never Let Me Go is built around an abhorrent aspect of social organisation. Crucially, in all three books, the focus of the subject matter is merely an extension of a facet of our own society. Fertility issues provide the material for The Handmaid’s Tale, while brainless consumerism fuelled Kingdom Come. Kazuo Ishiguro’s subject matter has a medical focus that provides an essentially more credible idea than either of the two other works mentioned. Eventually Ballard’s vision cannot be maintained by his scant material, whereas Margaret Atwood’s is strengthened by the credibility of its own downside, its own contradictions. Ishiguro’s story line is strong enough in itself to maintain interest, credibility and drama from start to finish. There is real humanity in this story.

The book begins in Hailsham, an obviously special school set in an idyllic corner of the English countryside. But this is clearly no ordinary education. We follow the fortunes of three of its students, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. We see them grow up, make their fumbling transformation from childhood to adolescence and then embark upon the stuttering unpredictability of young adulthood. Hailsham’s students have to learn how to deal with their own shortcomings and how to manage their talents. They must cope with sometimes strained relations with their teachers, especially in the area of reconciling what they want to do versus what seems to be demanded of them, and thus what they are allowed to attempt. They become aware of sex and introduce themselves to its world in their own ways at different times, each of them reacting differently to their experience.

So what makes these people so special? Well, for a start they live protected lives. They never appear to need any money, nor possessions, for that matter, what little they do have being recycled ad infinitum via a system of almost formal barter. They seem to be protected from fashion, consumerism, family break-up, mass media and even street life. Surely there is something strange about them, despite their apparently normal physical, mental and psychological characteristics.

Not until about half way through the book does the reader start to fill in the blanks. But by the end the dreadful picture is complete, and rendered even more frightening by its complete credibility. To find out the nature of the plot, you will have to read the book, but, though I have stressed the importance of the overall concept’s contribution to the book’s success, it is not the subject matter that makes this a superb novel. It is the characterisation, the empathy that the reader develops with Kathy and Tommy and the sympathy that their tragedy eventually engenders. The context served to amplify these responses, not blur or confuse them. It is this quality that makes never Let Me Go a completely memorable and highly moving read.

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Never Let Me Go

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Walk Up Fifth Avenue by Bernard Levin

Bernard Levin begins A Walk Up Fifth Avenue with three quotations from descriptions of New York City. These date from 1916, 1929 and 1949 and were written by Jane Kilmer, Theodore Dreiser and E. B. White respectively. Bernard Levin uses these vignettes to establish the reality, or perhaps unreality of a changing city, a superficially permanent edifice which really is in constant flux and is never more than a transient manifestation made concrete of the people, interests and activities it houses.

Bernard Levin’s 1989 book now becomes, itself, another such historical exhibit, since the twenty years that have elapsed since the publication of A Walk Up Fifth Avenue has seen major changes to New York’s skyline, economy and population. In 1989 Bernard Levin made scant reference to Arabs or Afghans, and hardly mentions Islam when referring to the city’s religious identity. In 1989, Russians, generally, were still in Russia, not the United States. The twin towers of the World Trade Centre appear in three of the book’s colour plates without remark, and nowhere in the book’s three hundred pages it took to walk the length of Fifth Avenue is there a single mention of the word “terrorism”.

For the targeted British audience of this book, the author, perhaps, symbolised something quintessentially English. An established columnist on The Times, well-known television commentator and latterly presenter of off-beat travel programmes, Bernard Levin was close to being a household name at the time, an instantly recognisable voice amongst the middle classes. But he was, himself, of immigrant stock, a Jew, and, at least originally, very much on the edge of the British establishment, no doubt knocking regularly on the its partially closed doors. Maybe this is why, in A Walk Up Fifth Avenue, he deals so informatively with the concepts of “new” and “old” money in New York. He describes beautifully how shady might be the origins of any kind of money, but the obvious class differences that the distinction engenders is keenly felt and wonderfully depicted in the book. Bernard Levin however, reveals that he is no fan of luxury for luxury’s sake, and clearly has little sympathy for any kind of conspicuous consumption.

He rubs shoulders with the better heeled at a New York party, but gently satirises the ostentation and the bad taste, perhaps being guilty of applying a new-world versus old-world, peculiarly British pomposity to place himself above an old money versus new money snobbery. It makes a fascinating juxtaposition of the author’s opinion and subjects’ assumptions. What makes the passages even more poignant for British readers, of course, is the Bernard Levin’s long association with satire, especially that aimed at the rich and powerful.

Levin is also clearly not a fan of commercialism. The appearance of Ronald McDonald in a Fifth Avenue parade promoted Levin to describe the character, somewhat sardonically, as “a true hero of our time”. It prompts the reader to reflect that Father Christmas, as we know him today, is largely the product of an erstwhile promotional campaign for Coca Cola and his default red and white is not much more than a corporate trademark. And perhaps even the practice of giving presents on a day other than the Three Kings was an American invention, driven more by marketing than generosity. One wonders whether a century from now children will sit on a burger clown’s knee to receive their annual schooling in consumerism.

A Walk Up Fifth Avenue is much more than a travel book. It’s considerably less than a history, and never attempts analysis. It is an informative, slightly random mixture of whatever caught the fancy of an observant, vaguely jaundiced British journalist as he tried to probe the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. It’s an uneven read, but doubly rewarding, since the book not only takes the reader there, it also now offers evidence of its own justification, because it catalogues change and invites us to reflect on our current, equally tenuous, impermanent status.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Poisoned Petals by Andy Crabb

Poisoned Petals by Andy Crabb is a set of over forty short stories, tales with a Spanish flavour. Most are set in Spain, with many featuring locations and people from within the Costa Blanca, where the author lives, works and continually observes. Some are historical, others utterly contemporary, both in time and in content.
Property developers, estate agents and used car salesmen figure alongside more traditional Spanish figures, such as the bar owner, the peasant farmer and the land owner. Some stories feature characters from Spain’s Moorish period, and others pre-Visigoth, even pre-Roman Iberians.

It is surprising, therefore, to read in the highly informative author’s postscript that several of the pieces germinated elsewhere, in Britain and southern Africa, for instance. Some were transplanted items from newspaper stories, while others arose from museum visits, local tales or shared discussion with other writers.

But the stories grew in Andy Crabb’s fertile imagination and bloomed into a veritable display of skilful, entertaining writing. The fact that the author claims they eventually flowered into Poisoned Petals gives the reader a hint from the start that irony and twist will play their part.

Many of Andy Crabb’s stories deal with the sibling concepts of revenge and retribution. People are often “getting away with something”, getting one up on an innocent or unsuspecting victim. Driven to anger by such perfidious exploitation, these inherently gentler, law-abiding characters themselves become vengeful, calculating deceivers, until the score is decisively settled. In often morally satisfying conclusions, many of the original villains receive a comeuppance that is significantly sweeter than mere defeat, longer lasting than simple victory.

And each of these conclusions has been richly deserved. In Preserved For Posterity, for instance, the retribution of the wronged husband is horrid in the extreme. But then the unjustly punished lover-thief-craftsman of the story was never really guilty of his accused crime. We know that. But then that’s perhaps why he has the final, though silent, laugh at the judgment of eternity. So it is ideas of morality and justice, honesty and loyalty that suffuse Poisoned Petals.

We are presented with people who try to ride roughshod over others, whose understandable, merely human hesitancy, born of their desire to uphold and respect another’s potential for dignity, identifies them as potential prey. Usually the victims win through in the end, turning the tables decisively on their predators. But this often happens only after the victims, themselves, have displayed their ability to become, if provoked, as devious, as base, as calculating and, indeed, as mercenary as the objects of their retribution. And so Poisoned Petals gives some beautiful insights into human behaviour, some vivid illustrations of resourcefulness.

It is a collection to read over a week or two, a few stories at a time, since each is self-contained and memorable. The stories provoke us to reflect on that human condition, and profitably, enjoyably so.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White

A reviewer of A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White is presented with a number of problems, In the paraphrased words of one of the book’s characters, there may be a lot in the wash, but eventually not much to hang out, and this, by the end of the book, largely summed up what it had delivered. Be reassured, however, that the process of reading A Boy’s Own Story is a delight from start to finish. 

Edmund White’s style is quite beautiful, full of complex allusions, superb characterisation and, above all, masterful description. Every character springs to life off the page. If only collectively or individually they had more to offer… 

 A Boy’s Own Story is an adolescent’s discovery and realisation of his own homosexuality. The book promises a lot of sex and, sure enough, it both begins and ends with explicit encounters. Throughout the remainder, however, the sex seems to be more in the mind than in the experience. It appears that Edmund White’s adult recollection of his teenage dilemmas could have been subject to the embellishment of later reflection. Repeatedly the author stretches time to explore the detail of options whenever the boy of the title is presented with a dilemma. These were surely the voices of later years speaking through an ostensibly reconstructed, but surely imagined past. The boy always spoke eloquently about his choices, considered options in detail, but perhaps not convincingly. One of the more engaging aspects of coming of age sagas is how innocence is portrayed and how its conquest is engineered.

In A Boy’s Own Story one feels that Edmund White wants to deny that he was ever innocent, or at least suggest that he would ever admit it. And so a spark that could have lit up the glowing prose never quite ignited. When the book first appeared over twenty years ago, the fact that it did appear in its explicit form, apparently denying the guilt that oozes off every page, might itself have been worthy of note. Twenty years on it now reads as merely dated, but still it reads beautifully thanks to the author’s supreme skill with words and expression. The issues that might previously have rendered it remarkable have, however, long since cooled, so now the reader must approach the book either as it is, as an autobiography, or alternatively in historical terms.

The book, however, cannot sustain the latter approach. I will now certainly seek out other books by Edmund White, but in the case of A Boy’s Own Story I am tempted to conclude that though writers have to be self-obsessed, when that neurosis is turned completely inward, it raises new barriers that can exclude the reader. Hence the gloss. Hence the sheen of the whiter than white washing that proves to be just half a load.

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