Friday, May 13, 2011

Books that make you think

There are books that make you think, and there are books that make you think till it starts to hurt and open wounds unknown to you before. Plagued by images and insomnia, I cannot help being pensive about the fabricated yet mind-numbingly real worlds of Ian McEwan's Atonement and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The power of good books being such, I am in a mood of denial. Of the reality. Of the world around me that whirls like a possessed dervish. Of my own meaningless existence. Thanks to my wise enrollment in the Contemporary British Fiction course from the University of Oxford, without which I probably wouldn't have been introduced to such achingly beautiful reads. And I see the world with a new pair of hollow eyes - hollow, because they've emptied themselves of the pestering wants. At least for now. Let the eyes be.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

It is an unusually hot English summer of the 1930s. The looming inertia and ugly stoniness of the Tallis estate lend character to the mounting sultriness. A thirteen year old Briony Tallis is like any other child at her age - curious, immature and impatient to understand the complicated world of adults. Harbouring a feverish passion for a literary career, she loves imagining stories and giving them shape with words whose paramount importance is the moral they convey. Amidst the clutter of her castles in air, lies her twisted reality - an absent father, a detached mother, a philandering elder brother (Leon), and a confused elder sister (Cecilia). Then there are the visitors - the cousins from the north, Lola and her twin brothers, who must stay with the Tallises till 'the Parents' sort out the nasty business of divorce; and Paul Marshall, a foppish rich friend of Leon's.

Despite the smothering heat, silence and hushed up family secrets, blossoms a surprising romance between Cecila and Robbie, the charlady's son who has been friends with the Tallis children since forever. With so much oh her platter and an imagination that already runs wild even when leashed, Briony weaves truths of her own. And when she stumbles upon her sister and Robbie caught up in a passionate moment which is ominously followed by Lola's rape, Briony cannot wait to give a conquering pattern to her story. Seizing the moment and impatient to cross the threshold of childhood, Briony's prejudiced testimony sends the wrong man to prison. Sixty years later, a famous writer, she writes a novel to atone for that one sin - to rectify her mistakes via her characters and give them another chance. Is she forgiven? On the canvas of a dysfunctional family, British class system and World War II, McEwan paints a haunting picture of love, longing and loss.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Nestled in the picturesque English countryside is the prestigious school of Hailsham, where the students are exceptionally well taken care of - weekly medical check-ups, no unhealthy teenage habits and an abnormal emphasis on art and poetry by the 'guardians' (yes, not teachers). This is the story of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy - three best friends who grow up together in this idyllic setting and fall into the ruts of the inevitable love triangle. Through Kathy's take-me-with-you narration, we at once become a part of their cloistered, yet happy lives. Almost after you are there, drawn in by her nostalgia, you wonder why these children are never let out? Who and where are there parents? Why this almost fetish-like obsession with health? And then, amidst flickering flashes of fear and discovery, it strikes you on the face - they are clones who are being reared in isolation and are perfected for their future as 'donors'. Their lives are mapped out even before they are created. But what is surprising and heartbreaking at the same time is how normal these children are - they fight and fuss, they listen to music and draw pictures, they fall in love - everything that the ordinary humans do.

Once they are adults they begin donating their organs till they just 'complete' (that's the word). Then there are the nurse-like 'carers' who take care of the donors during and after their extraction surgeries. All the while we keep asking - why this mute resignation to a horrible fate? Why the lack of rebellion? Riddled with euphemisms and a compelling narration that resembles a teenager's diary, Ishiguro slowly but steadily pushes us to an edge from where there is no escape. Dancing on tumultuous undercurrents the narration sails through friendship, love and sacrifice. And all this while death is just out there, lurking around the corner like a giant phantom beast. What option does one have on the face of absolute powerlessness? To go on living and loving, or to just wait for it?

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