In my memory my life at Hailsham falls into two distinct chunks: this last era, and everything that came before. The earlier years – the ones I’ve just been telling you about – they tend to blur into each other as a kind of golden time, and when I think about them at all, even the not-so-great things, I can’t help feeling a sort of glow. But those last years feel different. They weren’t unhappy exactly – I’ve got plenty of memories I treasure from them – but they were more serious, and in some ways darker.
I noticed that this book is soon to be released as a film starring Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield – the future Spider-Man – and current It girl of the moment Carey Mulligan. A warning to those who are curious – do not view the trailer if you haven’t read the book. It basically spoils the whole plot.
This is a great shame, as so much of the enjoyment of reading Ishiguro’s novel comes from having the plot unveiled in a non-linear fashion before the reader. It is written in such a curious, teasing style that to open the first page with even a broad understanding of what is to follow risks spoiling the experience of reading it entirely.
With that in mind I will attempt to tread carefully here.
(I have just rewatched the trailer myself – dear god, they even include the last scene from the novel!)
Hailsham is a special school for special children. Boarding at the institution from an early age, the boys and girls in attendance are educated in a broad array of subjects, as well as encouraged to engage in sport and the arts. Their instructors are known as guardians and the children under their care grow to adolescence with little experience of the outside world.
Kathy H was a student at Hailsham many years ago. Now she enjoys reminiscing on her experiences growing up at the school, narrating the events that led to her becoming a carer, her profession for over eleven years. She recalls the growing friendship she shared with a boy and a girl, Tommy and Ruth and the complicated love triangle that followed them from Hailsham, her passion for Tommy unfulfilled for many years.
Ruth was always an imaginative, attention seeking girl, prone to inventing secrets to share with a select number of friends. Kathy is eager to become her confidante, but finds it difficult as her inquisitive nature has a habit of revealing the lies her friend is compelled to tell their peers. Tommy is mocked and bullied by the other boys for fits of rage that he flies into whenever he feels tricked or alienated. Eventually a new guardian at Hailsham, a Lucy Wainwright, manages to cure Tommy of his anger. However, her compassion only spurs on the curiousity of the three children as to the purpose of the ‘special school’.
Certain words and phrases begin to be repeated within their hearing as they grow older, such as ‘carer’, ‘possibles’, ‘completed’, that are never properly explained. Strangely, despite their ignorance of the meaning behind these words, the repetition alone allows a certain familiarity with the expressions to grow, so that most of the students are never really all that curious about finding out what lies behind them.
Of course when the truth is revealed it is too late.
The story’s setting is Britain in the 1990s, but despite appearances by Oxfam stores for example, this is not our world. Kathy is not only an unreliable narrator, she is a frustrating. At least at first. The impression I had reading the book was that I was listening to the reminiscences of an elderly person who was not only senile, but desperate to hide secrets from their past from me. By the story’s conclusion, however, Ishiguro has revealed an entirely different reason for the importance of memory in Kathy’s life, as well as the nature of her recollections.
The title itself is drawn from a pop song that Kathy had a tape recording of. During the course of the novel her precious tape vanishes, only to reappear later at a significant point in the narrative. It becomes a delightful leitmotif for the themes of the novel, the meaning of the song’s lyrics, which is to say Kathy’s impression of their meaning, holding the secret behind the plot. The idyllic descriptions of Hailsham slowly reveal a sinister undercurrent, that drags the characters to an inevitable ending.
Heart-breaking, poignant and brilliantly studied.