A beautiful quote about parenting from Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’

I recently finished reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking novel about four male friends living in New York. Described in this review as “dark and traumatic” and “as bleak and addictive as they come”, I wouldn’t call it a light read! But it’s definitely a page-turner.

The novel centres around Jude, a man who survived an unfathomably traumatic childhood and is trying to live a ‘normal’ life (whatever that looks like). Jude is adored by his friends, despite revealing very little about himself or his past. The novel is ultimately about friendship, but it’s also about family – it explores the relationship between grown children and their parents.

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Emerging from creative silence

Elizabeth Gilbert on creative living

Over a month ago I vowed to update this blog every week, as a way of honouring my own creativity and clearing time in my schedule for personal projects. I had every intention of sticking to this goal but then – well, life. I got busy. More changes appeared on the horizon. Other projects captured my attention. And I did what I often do during times of big change – I chose silence.

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I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

 

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“In war, the first casualty is truth.” – Terry Hayes, I Am Pilgrim.

One of my university friends is extremely well-read and we often email back and forth about our latest literary findings. I’m usually quietly impressed by the pace in which he devours lengthy philosophical tomes by exotic authors I’ve never heard of, while I slowly make my way through the Whitcoulls Top 100. We compare topics and make suggestions and recommendations, and it’s a great way to keep in touch – I’m not sure I could ever tire talking about books.

It was during one such conversation that I attempted to describe my feelings towards I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.

“I can’t decide whether I loved it or hated it!”

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Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.” – Dellarobia Turnbow, Flight Behaviour

I finished this book about six months ago and have been trying to write a review about it ever since. But the right words continue to elude me. Countless drafts later and I still do not feel like I can do this book justice.

I think it’s because Barbara Kingsolver is, in a word, brilliant. Every word she writes carries so much weight – no sentence is wasted. Her prose is tightly controlled, but at the same time it possesses a rhythmic quality, like poetry.

As an aspiring writer, I find her work incredibly intimidating. Reviewing it feels odd, like an apprentice commenting on a master’s technique. Maybe I should call this post a letter of admiration instead.

Her latest novel, Flight Behaviour, is fearlessly honest. Kingsolver tackles no small topic: climate change. Never one to shy away from controversial subject matter (see: The Poisonwood Bible), she leaves little room for the reader to hide from hard truths in Flight Behaviour.

Synopsis 

Set in small town rural America (Appalachia to be exact), Flight Behaviour follows the life of Dellarobia Turnbow, a farmer’s wife and mother of two. Dellarobia leads a simple existence by some comparisons. Too poor to afford a computer or a smartphone, she rarely uses the internet and is in a way disconnected from the wider world. Her life revolves around her two children, five-year-old Preston and three-year-old Cordelia, her sweet yet uninspiring husband, Cub, and her overbearing mother-in-law, Hester.

Dellarobia’s days are consumed by plastic toys, baby food and sneaking out onto the porch to chain smoke cigarettes. On Sunday the family goes to church. Occasionally her best friend Dovey will come over and they will do each other’s hair and dream about the lives they could have led.

Dellarobia is plagued by the feeling that she is not living up to her true potential. Exhausted and depressed, she is ready for change, and is about to run away from her mundane farm life – and her two beloved children – to have an affair with a young lover. In the first chapter she drops her children off at her mother-in-law’s, puts on a pair of nice boots and trudges up the hills behind her property to begin her new life. But then she sees something that makes her think twice.

“A small shift between cloud and sun altered daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame… The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze.”

Butterflies. Thousands of them, if not millions. Orange monarch butterflies were occupying every branch of every tree, as far as the eye could see. Through Dellarobia’s eyes we adjust to the view, unable to understand why – or how – these winged creatures came to be here, behind her property. That sight scorched Dellarobia’s mind and sent her hurrying back down the mountain, back to her kids, back to her family, with a renewed sense of purpose.

“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.”

And so the story begins. Overwhelmed by their beauty, Dellarobia at first tries to keep the butterflies to herself. But before long news of the unusual colony has attracted the attention of scientists the world over. As Dellarobia learns more about the phenomenon, she realises the butterflies may not be the miracle she’d hoped for.

Dr Ovid Byron, a leading butterfly researcher, sets up a science lab on Dellarobia’s property and begins to study the monarchs. A tall, gentle, highly intelligent man of African-American descent, he is unlike any man Dellarobia has ever known – she is transfixed by his presence in her life. He provides her with a full-time job in the lab, the first she’s ever had.

As she learns about the butterflies and gains some financial independence, the storyline is propelled towards the uncertainty looming on the horizon – not just for Dellarobia, but for the fragile monarchs. Having never migrated this far north, they are in a precarious situation. Will they survive the winter? Or will the entire species be wiped out? Will Dellarobia pull her life together and do the best by her kids? Or will she sink into the apathy that plagues so many people today?

My thoughts

Many climate change narratives swing from one natural disaster to the next, swallowing cities whole and wiping populations off the earth. Flight Behaviour is far more subtle – and therefore far more representative of climate change itself. There’s a dangerous belief circulating that one day climate change is going to hit us like a tonne of bricks and then we will all wake up to the reality. But, as Flight Behaviour beautifully illustrates, climate change is happening right now, at a pace that is too slow for people to take significant notice yet fast enough that it will have drastic consequences.

This novel opened my eyes to how the ‘little things’ aren’t so little when they are done by everyone, on a grand scale. The lunch wrappers I throw in the bin every day. The cheap clothes that fall apart after a few spins in the washing machine. The casual consumerism that we all participate in to feel accepted by society. Flight Behaviour is a stark reminder that the earth wasn’t created solely for our comfort. If we want to stay long on this planet we must relearn how to give nature the caution it demands and respect it requires.

Bookmarked quotes

“Mistakes wreck your life. But they make what you have. It’s kind of all one. You know what Hester told me when we were working the sheep one time? She said it’s no good to complain about your flock, because it’s the put-together of all your past choices.”

“Will you explain to me why people encourage delusional behaviour in children, and medicate it in adults?”

“The last generation’s worst fears became the next one’s B-grade entertainment.”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.” 

At 232 pages, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is not a mammoth masterpiece. It is, however, a very clever one. I read it in a few hours on a lazy Sunday morning, absolutely captivated by the story – even though I’d already seen the movie. 

An epistolary novel (a book written in letters), it is told through the eyes of Charlie, a slightly awkward teenager, adjusting to high school life. There is all the usual teen stuff – first love, proms, exams. But the real brilliance of the story lies in its subtlety. Through Charlie, author Stephen Chbosky provides us with a running commentary on the daily life of a middle class American family living in suburbia in the early 90s. There are no dragons or wizards: just music records, bookstores and a lot of pot.

Charlie is incredibly philosophical. Often his letters, addressed ‘Dear Friend’ to an anonymous recipient, will include detailed play-by-plays of family parties or school lunches. But most of the time, Charlie – or Chbosky – is commenting on (read: challenging) social norms and musing on how silly some conventions seem. It’s one of those books that helps you put life in perspective and forces you to look at situations in a different light.

To illustrate my example, here is a quote from one of my favourite passages. Charlie is in a takeout restaurant (presumably McDonalds):

“I saw other people there. Old men sitting alone. Young girls with blue eye shadow and awkward jaws. Little kids who look tired. Fathers in nice coats who looked even more tired. Kids working behind counters of the food places who looked like they hadn’t had the will to live for hours. The machines kept opening and closing. The people kept giving money and getting their change. And it all felt very unsettling to me.”

This short paragraph contains so much meaning. You can see why Chbosky didn’t need to write a 600 page novel – his 232 pages are more than enough. He gives you a tantalising glimpse into the lives of so many different characters – and then he moves on. Just in that paragraph, you have snippets of other people’s stories. And you can probably relate to them all on some level.

My thoughts

I found it incredibly refreshing to read a book that communicated powerful messages in such a ‘readable’ fashion. As in, in a clear and unpretentious way. And I don’t think it was by accident. Charlie received advice from his advanced English teacher about his writing, as follows:

“[Bill] said that I should use the vocabulary that I learn in class like ‘corpulent’ and ‘jaundice’. I would use them here, but I really don’t think they are appropriate in this format. To tell you the truth, I don’t know where they are appropriate to use. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know them. You should absolutely. But I have just never heard anyone use the words ‘corpulent’ and ‘jaundice’ ever in my life. That includes teachers. So what’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably? I just don’t understand that.”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t hide behind any fancy words or academic references. It is the sort of book you can read in a couple of hours on a lazy Sunday morning, but finish the last page feeling as though you have soaked up a whole semester’s worth of philosophy class. And if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it contains the essential hallmark of a great novel: a shocking twist.

Although that doesn’t mean it embodies perfection. One passage in particular in The Perks of Being a Wallflower stood out to me. Bill, Charlie’s English teacher, gave him a new book to read. And this is what he said:

“Be sceptical about this one. It’s a great book. But try to be a filter, not a sponge.”

I read that sentence a few times, and it dawned on me that lately, I have been a sponge. Just read my latest review of ‘Little Princes‘ and you’ll see what I mean. I’m positively gushing about this book, praising it to high heaven – so much so that I probably didn’t apply a filter at all when reading it. My critical eye was blinded. Instead I had just soaked it all up and bathed in what I perceived to be its brilliance.

But I need to be a filter. The written word is powerful and I can be easily inspired. All it takes is one novel about orphanages in Nepal and I’m ready to pack my bags and sign up as a volunteer. Now, in hindsight, I see that Little Princes may have teetered on the ever-blurry border of fact and fiction. How much of it was true and how much of it was carefully constructed publicity? The author, after all, has a not-for-profit to run. This book wasn’t just written to provide an insight into Nepalise life – there is always an agenda. And this doesn’t make it bad, but it is simply worth remembering. With how much I read, I need to be a filter, or I will struggle to stay sane under the weight of so many different ideas.

And that, when I think about it, is probably why Charlie needed to be a filter too. He suffered from severe panic attacks and was highly sensitive to the world around him – so much so it almost killed him. But life will not be enriching if you try to soak it all up like a sponge. Eventually you are going to run out of room and become laden and heavy, overburdened with information, unable to move forward. But being a filter, you can take what you need out of life and leave the rest. It isn’t worth holding onto what doesn’t serve you.

Bookmarked Quotes

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

“Enjoy it. Because it’s happening.”

“He’s a wallflower. You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” 

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

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“There was something about volunteering in a Third World orphanage at the outset of my trip that would squash any criticism. Who would dare begrudge me my year of fun after doing something like that?” – Conor Grennan, Little Princes

I love reading. I can’t get enough of it. I love the way a simple sentence can expand your mind and open you up to a world of new ideas. I love the way books can inspire compassion, empathy, gratitude and understanding. I firmly believe the world would be a better place if everyone made a little time to read about other people’s stories.

For this reason, I don’t tend to be particularly fussy when it comes to choosing reading material. I am happy to give anything a try. Who knows what insight it could provide?

But some stories stick out among the rest. Like shooting stars or bright smiles, some stories stand up and demand attention. They are the ones that linger in your mind long after you’ve finished the final page. For a bookworm like me, these stories are the crème de la crème of reading. They are enough to put a bounce in my step for weeks.

‘Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal’ by Conor Grennan is one of these great books. And I believe that’s because it’s a story about the resilience and beauty of the human spirit.

A non-fiction memoir about child trafficking in Nepal, Little Princes is not based on a light subject. But Conor’s recount of his journey to save lost children from starvation and poverty and reunite them with their families is remarkably upbeat. He manages to take a depressing subject and turn it into inspiration.

Conor was about to turn 30 when he decided to go on a round-the-world trip. He’d saved plenty of money and was excited to take a break from work to explore. He could have spent the entire year holidaying in the sun, but something compelled him to spend his first three months volunteering in an orphanage in Nepal called the Little Princes Children’s Home.

After reading the first few pages I had a new respect for volunteers, and a new understanding of what life was like for children in poverty. I find volunteering is so common nowadays that many people hear of someone else doing it and simply shrug their shoulders and say “that’s nice, good on them”. It’s as if we’ve almost become indifferent to its importance. We think of the travel opportunities, “wow, think of how much you’ll see in Nepal”, rather than the more important reason for volunteering – helping out those less fortunate than ourselves.

Even Conor admits that his decision to go to Nepal was a rather selfish one at first. He felt guilty for taking a whole year off to travel and thought, by volunteering, he could avoid any criticism from his friends and family.

“There was something about volunteering in a Third World orphanage at the outset of my trip that would squash any criticism,” he writes. “Who would dare begrudge me my year of fun after doing something like that?”

I love the honesty of this statement. Like so many of us in a Facebook-dominated society, Conor was more preoccupied with what people would think about him than how the experience would actually affect him. He expected to finish his three months there and never look back.

When he arrived at the orphanage, Conor was struck by culture shock and most likely counting down the days until he could get back to ‘normal’ civilisation. In Nepal, Western toilets and clean water supplies were luxuries. Every day, Conor’s energy was completely consumed by the children who were constantly vying for his attention. Every night, everyone in the orphanage ate the same meal for dinner, daal bhat (curried rice and vegetables). Heating was scarce and it was cold. And to make matters worse, Conor had arrived in 2004 and Nepal was in the midst of a civil war. Armed soldiers were everywhere, revolution was stirring and the situation was becoming increasingly serious.

In other words, Conor wasn’t in his comfortable home back in America any longer. Volunteering in an orphanage was no longer just an abstract idea, a way to show his friends and family he wasn’t selfish. It was now a reality. And there was no escaping the fact it was going to be hard.

Yet Conor persevered, and after awhile he found unexpected happiness. The life was simple and often tough. But the children were beacons of positive energy, always laughing and telling stories. I firmly believe most children want to be happy. And this drive, this inherent human desire, is why so many people in challenging situations still wear a smile. You often see photos of kids from third world countries, huge grins plastered on their faces after a hard day walking for hours to fetch water. A stereotypical image, I know, but one that speaks a thousand words.

This probably sounds like a simplistic interpretation. I’m slightly ashamed to admit I know very little about third world countries, and I don’t want to sound ignorant or talk down the very real challenges these children do face. But the spirit of the children in Little Princes is what made the book shine. They are the backbones of the book. And all I could think of after I finished was how resilient human beings are.

Once Conor’s three months were up, he had grown very attached to life at Little Princes. He did what few volunteers do – he promised the children he would return in a year’s time. Many of them didn’t believe him, but Conor felt compelled to go back.

Fast forward one year and Conor returns to Little Princes and begins a very different journey. The civil war in Nepal is escalating. Although Little Princes was in a relatively safe part of the Kathmandu Valley, danger lurked around every corner. And in this turbulent environment, Conor discovered the children at the orphanage were not orphans – they had parents who were alive. Parents who had paid large sums to a strange man to take their children away from their villages so they could have an education. The man promised he would put them in a good school and keep them safe from the war. Instead he kept them starving in squallor and sent them out to the streets to beg. He pocketed all profits. The children were his income. And their parents heard nothing of their lost loved ones.

When Conor uncovered this truth, he realised the Little Princes orphanage was one of many. Hundreds if not thousands of children in Nepal had been victims of child trafficking during the war. Unable to ignore this gross injustice, he sets about doing what he can to make it better.

Reading Conor’s story opened my eyes to a part of the world I knew very little about. You always hear people talking about poverty in the media. I think to a certain extent I block it out – why think about something you feel you can’t change? But Little Princes doesn’t force the idea of volunteering down your throat. It doesn’t imply that you are a bad person if you don’t donate to charity. It simply – and effectively – raises awareness that not every child grows up in a warm home. Not every child is safe. Not every child goes to school. Not every child has equal opportunity.

These may seem like obvious truths, but they are truths easily pushed to the back of your mind when you are more preoccupied with challenges in your own life. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. My boyfriend Tom often uses the term ‘relative poverty’, meaning everything people feel tends to be relative to their own experiences.

For example, at the moment I feel anxious about not having as much money as I usually have (turns out unemployment is expensive). But in comparison to the children in Nepal (and the majority of children around the world, in fact), I am wealthy beyond words. But even this knowledge doesn’t stop me from feeling slightly anxious – because my anxiety is relative to my situation. I am not that child in Nepal. I am me, with my own financial pressures and expectations.

I will never truly understand what it is like to be a child in Nepal. But thanks to books like Little Princes I am at least aware of their story. I am aware of their existence, their struggle. And this helps me cultivate gratitude – gratitude for the food on my plate, gratitude for my education, gratitude for being born into a nice family in a safe part of the world.

And I firmly believe that unless you are grateful for what you have and aware of the preciousness of life, you will never be able to truly help others. And once you welcome the warm rays of gratitude in your life, you also begin to feel compassion, empathy, love. With this shift in understanding, you are more equipped to reach out and make a positive change within your community. It’s an upward spiral.

I have never been to a third world country. The closest I have probably been to seeing poverty with my own eyes was when I was an exchange student in Tahiti at age 14. Other than the occasional encounter with a beggar in Europe, I haven’t been to remote areas of the world where people really do live close to starvation, with barely enough to feed their families let alone themselves.

It is too easy to forget that the majority of people in the world do not have the comforts we take for granted every day. And I think this is why Little Princes impacted me so much. Like a light bulb going off, I thought with a searing clearness: “I need to know more about how other people live”. I don’t want to be in the dark about the challenges people face. I don’t want to be ignorant. I want to know, even if it’s hard. Because we’re all connected, we’re all sharing this one precious world. And what happens in Nepal isn’t separate from what happens here.

I didn’t have any answers after reading it. I didn’t know how to make it all better. But that didn’t scare me as it may have before. Instead I just felt like the most important thing in the world was to simply be aware. With awareness I will be forced to remember how special and unique my life is. With awareness, I might make better decisions on a day to day basis. And with awareness, I might one day be able to make a real difference. Awareness is key. Without it, what do any of us have?

So if you’re after a book that will challenge your opinions, shift your perspective and open your heart to the world, I suggest you give Little Princes a try. Please let me know your thoughts if you do.

Jess x

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen book review

I picked up a tattered copy of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen from a second-hand bookstore over the summer holidays. Mine is a paperback version, with a picture of Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon locked in a tender embrace on the front cover. I’d already seen the movie, which I enjoyed, and I wanted to see if the book was just as good.

Set in America in the 1930s, Water for Elephants follows the life of Jacob Jankowski, a young student born to Polish parents and studying to be a vet. His world is turned upside down when his parents both die in a car crash, and he runs away from his hometown to start a new life. Somehow, he ends up jumping on board a moving train, which he soon discovers is home to a travelling circus called “The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth”.

Before long he has been hired as the show’s vet and has been taken under the wing of equestrian manager August, a mentally unstable and intense character who happens to be married to the beautiful performer Marlena. As you can imagine an awkward love triangle ensues and the rest of the book is largely centred around Jacob’s desire to start a new life with Marlena, and August’s terrifying control over her, the animals and many of the show’s workers.

But it wouldn’t be called Water for Elephants without an elephant. The book’s fourth protagonist is Rosie, a large, stubborn, alcohol-drinking elephant with a penchant for mischief. I think the circus animals, especially Rosie, are what make this book special. Jacob and Marlena fall in love against the backdrop of an elephant and an array of other circus animals including horses, monkeys, lions, panthers and more.

All of these elements made for an excellent movie. I found it hugely entertaining to watch a circus come to life on the big screen, and I found Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Marlena very convincing – which made up for that fact that I found it hard to see Robert Pattinson as anything other than ‘Edward from Twilight’.

I think the fact that I had already seen the movie hugely influenced how much I enjoyed the book. Usually books offer more detail and depth than films. So I guess you could say, when I picked up Water For Elephants, I was looking for something extra. What was the book going to tell me that I didn’t pick up from the movie? As a New York Times Bestseller, I was expecting it to be fantastic. Instead, I read it with lukewarm appreciation.

I already knew what was going to happen at the end, which meant the story was robbed of suspense and mystery. The film was incredibly faithful to the book, so I didn’t get that ‘something extra’ that I was looking for. Instead I felt as though I was re-reading a story. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it – I just didn’t love it. And I wouldn’t feel compelled to read it again. My favourite aspect of the book was tapping more inside the head of 90-year-old Jacob, a cranky, cantankerous man, as he battled with nursing staff in his resting home and grappled with flashbacks to his time on the circus and falling in love with Marlena.

I wonder what my reading experience would have been like if I had not seen the movie first?

Whether you have seen the film or not, Water for Elephants makes a nice story. Sara Gruen writes with stunning simplicity, saying just enough but not too much. I enjoyed the conversational tone and found it incredibly easy-to-read. It is a good book for when you are on holiday, but if you’ve seen the movie just don’t expect it to be a page-turner.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro Book Review

Do you ever wonder why some people are the way they are? Do you ever find it difficult to comprehend how some people can believe in certain things? Do you ever want to shake people out of their “stupor” and help them see what you deem to be true?

Sometimes what we believe in can seem so simple – and so right – that we cannot understand for a minute why people could possibly believe in something different.

But then, what is truth? What is right?

When I started reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a story set at a boarding school for clones in dystopian England, I found it absurd. The idea of human clones being created and raised to donate their organs and “complete” (die) before they could grow old seemed utterly ridiculous. “That would never happen,” I thought. “People would never let that happen.”

But, as I read on, it dawned on me that people let terrible things happen all the time. It dawned on me that the fictional world created in Never Let Me Go might not be as far from reality as I first thought.

But most of all, it dawned on me that it’s hard to draw a line in the sand between right and wrong, even though many societies and religions are built on this very binary.

Let me use a drastic example to illustrate my point.

When I was younger, I found it utterly incomprehensible how thousands if not millions of people supported Jewish extradition and anti-Semitism during the Holocaust. Yet, although we do not like to talk about it, many people fervently believed that Jews were the cause of their troubles. How could they justify this belief? In what world could this attitude ever be okay? I struggled to comprehend how the Holocaust happened, let alone how people believed and followed Adolf Hitler.

Yet that was when I underestimated the power of narrative – the power of storytelling. You might want to substitute the word ‘stories’ for ‘fiction’, and go as far to use the word ‘lies’. After all, what is fiction if not an alternative to truth?

Of course there is truth in fiction and vice versa, but the point I’d like to make today is that storytelling, narrative, fiction – whatever you’d like to call it – is powerful. Words and stories are people’s way of trying to make sense of the world around us, and when told in the right way, can transform a person’s understanding of their own existence, their own reason for being. Stories offer people a way to rationalise the incomprehensible. Just look at the Bible.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Holocaust, or religion for that matter, but the way I interpret the Antisemitism that occurred during the Second World War is that someone, somewhere, long before the war even began, exaggerated the truth. And this exaggeration grew and grew and grew, and like a game of Chinese Whispers, the story morphed and grew legs and started to walk on its own accord.

The people of Germany desperately needed a story to help them comprehend what had happened to their country. Antisemitism narratives had been circulating for years if not centuries, and picked up pace after the First World War. These narratives morphed into something sinister beyond words, but also served as a way for people to interpret their own suffering. Antisemitism narratives offered people an explanation for the injustices they had lived through – a scapegoat, if you will.

And so people, in their desperation, followed the Nazi party. They believed in the propaganda being circulated. They saw these Antisemitism narratives as their lifeline, as a way to interpret their own struggles. I’m not saying this is in any way acceptable, but when you look at it from this view point, you can see how people did the unthinkable – you can see how they thought the unthinkable. They were compelled by a powerful narrative, by a story that placed them as the victims and others as the villains.

It is this theme – the power of fiction, of narrative, the binary of victim vs villain – that I believe runs through Never Let Me Go.

Set in dystopian England, in a fictional boarding school called Hailsham, Never Let Me Go is an unsettling story about clones who are raised to be organ donors.  There are boarding schools across England – and perhaps the world – where these clones are raised with one sole purpose: to save the lives of others.

They are raised in the knowledge that one day, probably sometime in their early to late 30s, they will start donating their organs. First they might give a kidney, second they might lose an eye. They are raised in the knowledge that they will probably “complete” or die on their third or fourth donation, and their duty will be done. They are raised in the knowledge that they will have no children, no jobs, no opportunities that conflict with their destiny to donate their organs.

And the most unsettling part of this story? Not one character openly challenges this path. Not one donor goes up against the injustice of it all. The only teacher who creates a stir is swiftly removed from Hailsham and dissolves into the background of the narrative.

In fact, the clones seem to roam free and lead reasonably independent lives after they leave Hailsham. Before they start donations, they work as ‘carers’ for other donors, driving them to and from medical appointments and supporting them as they “complete”. They don’t seem to be followed around by security and there is no mention of what might happen should they decide not to fulfill their destiny.

The story’s protagonists, Kathy and Tommy, catch wind of a rumour that they may be able to apply for a deferral if they can prove they are in love, a chance to live an extra two to three years before their donations commence. At this point, Ishiguro offers us hope. I turned the pages hoping and hoping that Ishiguro would deliver me a fairytale ending, and that all would be well.

Let’s just say that my hope was met with frustration, denial and confusion. I didn’t get a fairytale ending. I didn’t even get the satisfaction of watching the clones try – and I mean really try – to escape the fate that was mapped out for them.

How could no one see this great injustice?  Why doesn’t anyone start a rebellion? How is Ishiguro letting his characters stand back and watch this happen? What is he trying to say?

Upon reflection, I think it all comes down to the power of a compelling story. Ever since they could walk and talk, the clones had been told over and over again their purpose in life – to complete. To give up their organs and to complete.

They had been raised to believe this was the only path, and so this is what they believe. When this is the only story you have been told, how do you know any different? How can we expect people to make different decisions when they are only privy to one version of the truth? Not everyone is born with the capacity or bravery to question and challenge the world around them. Most people will follow the path that has been set out for them, accept the faith of their fore-bearers  and do what has always been told is “right”. Why should the clones of Hailsham be any different?

The same goes for the people who are receiving the organ donations – for the public in general. They too were told a compelling story. They believe that the clones are not human, that they have no soul. The clones are believed to be replicas of the “scum of society”. Of murderers and rapists and psychopaths. The clones are the villains. The organ recipients are the victims – the victims of cancer, of disease.

And so there we have it. That familiar binary that is present in nearly every story: the victims, and the villains. One man’s loss for another man’s gain. The justification of right and wrong.

Never Let Me Go is the story of a world where terrible actions are justified. Although the situation itself is fictional, I believe there is definitely an element of truth to this piece of fiction. Every day someone else suffers so someone else can prosper. Every day, we create narratives to justify this suffering, and to cope with the challenging world we live in. Every time we sit down to eat a meal, someone suffers from starvation. Every time we fill up our cars, someone pays a price much dearer than money for the acquisition of oil.

Yet despite what we know of other people’s suffering, we continue. We live our lives. We eat large meals, we drive large cars. We might add a dollar or two to a charity bin on the side of the street, but most of the time we try to forget that there are other people in this world who are suffering. Much like the organ recipients in Hailsham probably try to forget where their new kidney or eye come from.

We tell ourselves stories to keep going. We seek beauty in life and suppress suffering. We play the cards that we are dealt and try to lead a good, happy, just life. However, Never Let Me Go is a sombre reminder that nothing comes without a price.

It’s bleak, it’s raw, it’s utterly confronting – but Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro will remind you of the lengths that we will go to to survive, and the stories that we will create to justify our presence in this unjust world.

Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

It has been weeks since I finished Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

The subject matter is challenging and daunting: written from the perspective of Julia, a pre-teen living in suburban California, Age of Miracles imagines that the rotation of the earth starts to slow.

Daylight stretches well into the night, darkness lasts well into the day. Clock time becomes a thing of the past as the earth spins slower and slower.

Age of Miracles is an intriguing read. It draws attention to just how fragile our existence really is. Continue reading