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27 December 2008 / April

In which I try to write a book review

A month or two ago, my mom asked me what I think makes a good book.  “Well, it has to be well-written,” I replied immediately.  And paused, thinking.  “Like, really well-written.  Like it makes you stop and re-read passages because they’re so well-written.”

I thought some more.  “Actually, that’s it.”

Of course, “well-written” is such a general term that this seems pretty obvious– I mean, good books aren’t well-constructed or well-fed or anything.  Of course they’re “well-written.”

What I was trying to get at was actual skill with language.  Probably an innovative plot or multidimensional characters or interesting ideas are good steps towards this, but it’s really the way words are put together that makes or breaks a book for me.  And that’s why Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is not my cup of tea.

When the first two sentences of a book are “My name is Kathy H.  I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years”, you do realize this highly simplistic style must be intentional.  I guess it’s an effective use of voice; after all, Ishiguro is a Booker Prize-winning novelist, but Kathy reminiscing about her schoolgirl days isn’t.  Yet even knowing this, I just couldn’t enjoy reading this the way I would another “well-written” book.

Not to say it wasn’t a page-turner.  When virtually every section ends with a cliffhanger like “For a while things seemed to be okay.  But that was before that rainy summer afternoon when something between Ruth and me changed forever,”* you really do have to keep reading.

Discovering details about this chillingly plausible alternate world Ishiguro has concocted is fascinating as well, though again it suffers from mediocre writing style.  A number of reviewers have praised the way he carefully and gradually revealed the truth about this world, but to me it seemed hugely contrived.  Near the beginning of the book were lots of passages that suggested the fates of Kathy and her friends without actually revealing them.  Which was oh-so-suspenseful, but you’re left thinking, come on, if someone were really writing a memoir, would they have left that essential information out?  And at the end comes that clichéd scene where some old character explains everything you and the main characters haven’t yet figured out.

Speaking of clichés, I’m pretty sure every single character in this book is one.  Most salient is Ruth, the best friend who’s actually kind of a bitch– but really, such a good friend– but really, SUCH a bitch.  But there’s also the apparently clueless and actually perceptive boy, the creepy mysterious old lady, the authority figure who’s actually a rebel, etc etc etc.  Also, one of the major plot devices is also one of the oldest clichés of all time: the love triangle.

Now, literary clichés become clichés for a reason, i.e. they’re good at what they’re meant to do.  The love triangle (… and the whole alternate universe situation) makes for a rather moving melancholy atmosphere in the novel.

But I think a better use of language would have heightened that.  Or, keep the unusual writing style but kill the clichés, a strategy that might not appeal to readers like me as much but still could work.  It’s just this combination that does nothing for me.

*Not a direct quote.  I think.

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2 Comments

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  1. Sarah / Dec 27 2008 7:57 pm

    my books are well-fed. milk and cookies every night. I don’t know what you do with your books. 😛

  2. April / Dec 27 2008 9:38 pm

    Organic, vegan, local. They’re not too happy about it, but it’s good for them and for the environment.

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