Wow. Ishiguro really knows how to tug at your heartstrings. My initial reactions are of deep compassion and regret on behalf of the three main characters.
It’s such an immersive read. You enter into this idyllic world with a decided English charm, set in what seems to be a quaint boarding school out in the countryside. As you go along, you pick up hints that things aren’t what they seem: a word used that feels out of place, or a scenario that just doesn’t sit right with you.
As you keep going, the reality of this world starts to unravel. This is done masterfully: the whole book is really Kathy sorting out her memories and trying to make sense of them. As a result, the narration carries a heavy nostalgia, a longing for the past, or what could have been, to which the book’s title is fitting. There is an eery prescience to the narration, as you start the book ‘in the dark’, oblivious to all that has already happened for Kathy. Then again, perhaps Kathy is as much in the dark as you are.
The immersive effect of the novel is perhaps mostly owing to its narration, which remains in the first person throughout the whole book. You’re experiencing the world as Kathy. This somehow never grew tiresome, mostly due to Kathy’s staunch honesty and self-reflection. She’ll have a conversation, then walk away in deep thought about her motivations and that of the other person. She routinely takes stock of her biases and enters social situations with meticulous forethought.
It is easy to go through life living in the black and white world of certainty. This book lives in the grey zone that lies somewhere between morality and amorality or regret and mortality. The word that best describes the feeling it conveys is ambivalence. As the plot unravelled I found myself increasingly unsettled by the world I found myself a part of. As I take a step back from that fictional world, I consider whether it might contain subtle truths about the world I’m experiencing.
In many ways, I could relate to Kathy and learnt a lot about myself through her. Myself now in my early 20s, I’m at a point in my life where, much like Kathy, my childhood nostalgia is also unravelling. I’m learning for the first time about things that have already happened. I’m realising that there’s a lot I don’t know and that I don’t really have myself or others figured out. I could relate to Kathy’s compulsion to overanalyse social situations and the rigidity about her behaviour: she always needs to do and say what’s right and appropriate, seemingly for fear of messing up.
There is something deeply unresolved about Kathy, and all the characters, for that matter. Nobody knows any of the answers. Nobody knows what the point of it all is. The specials could choose to escape at any time, to which it’s unlikely they’d face much resistance. Yet they choose to live out the destiny that’s been handed them. Perhaps because any other path is too alien and would cause them to lose all that they have. The Christian in me tells me it is in the selfsame losing that they could find life. Ishiguro himself admitted in an interview to not being interested in the idea of escape. He is far more interested in exploring the human condition and how people respond to mortality. He intended for the characters to accept their fate, rather than question or oppose it. I’m grateful for this, as I feel it is challenging to write about and not done enough. I appreciate that I can learn about and have compassion for people who didn’t question their fate and lived it out, even if it is in my nature to do the opposite.
In the end, what I find most painful is that Kathy never does manage to sort out her memories, and the novel closes with her in a marsh in Norfolk, still clinging on to what she admits to being a childish belief that since all the nation’s lost-and-found ends up there, then maybe, just maybe, she can convince herself that Tommy will turn up and things will still go back to how they once were. Agonisingly, she never quite manages to let go.