While reading several new novels published this past spring, one is struck by the way that the British novelists who take up the issues of our times prefer to do so not directly but at an angle. There is Ian McEwan, who, in addressing the shock of 9/11 (or 11/9 as it is spoken of in Europe), chose Mrs. Dalloway as a model and Virginia Woolf’s way of including the horrors of World War II in a sunlit day of an English summer. Now we have Kazuo Ishiguro dealing with the present hotly debated issue of cloning by seeming to revert to an old tradition of British boarding school stories. McEwan’s pleasant, bourgeois world is drenched in golden light. Ishiguro’s more austere scene is cast in the pearly, opaque light with which we tend to drape the past; he hints at the shadows that lie around but chooses to keep them at a decorous distance.
The world Ishiguro creates is both similar to the one we know from our schooldays and yet not quite so. The children at Hailsham seem curiously restrained; not only do they not venture beyond its boundaries, they do not seem to want to do so. Even later in life, when one would think they had every reason to find the very idea of Hailsham repulsive, they still talk dreamily
about our guardians, about how we each had our own collection chests under our beds, the football, the rounders, the little path that took you all round the outside of the main house, round all its nooks and crannies, the duck pond, the food, the view from the Art Room over the fields on a foggy morning.
The narrator, Kathy H., for whom it seems to have been the complete world, can exclaim, as an adult, “how lucky we’d been—Tommy, Ruth, me, all the rest of us,” because she had once been a part of it. Even the sight, while she drives through the country, of school sports pavilions, “little white prefab buildings with a row of windows,” sends her into raptures:
We loved our sports pavilion, maybe because it reminded us of those sweet little cottages people always had in picture books when we were young. I can remember us back in the Juniors, pleading with guardians to hold the next lesson in the pavilion instead of the usual room….
Then we are told about the particular traditions at Hailsham for which it was so beloved: the “Exchanges,” for instance.
Four times a year—spring, summer, autumn, winter—we had a kind of exhibition-cum-sale of all the things we’d been creating in the three months since the last Exchange. Paintings, drawings, pottery; all sorts of “sculptures” made from whatever was the craze of the day—bashed-up cans, maybe, or bottle tops stuck onto cardboard. For each thing you put in, you were paid in Exchange Tokens—the guardians decided how many your particular masterpiece merited—and then on the day of the Exchange you went along with your tokens and “bought” the stuff you liked. The rule was you could only buy work done by students in your own year, but that still gave us plenty to choose from, since most of us could get pretty prolific over a three-month period.
Hmmm, you think, schoolchildren “buying,” so enthusiastically, not candy, not toys, but artwork? We later learn there were “Sales” in which students obtained things from tradesmen. But Kathy explains that the Exchanges “were our only means, aside from the Sales…of building up a collection of personal possessions,” while Ruth says, “It’s all part of what made Hailsham so special…the way we were encouraged to value each other’s work.” And also to be creative—excelling at football, or rounders, was not of any importance, but painting, sculpture, writing poetry were. The boy Tommy who shows no aptitude at all for arts and crafts is the one picked upon and seen as backward: “He got left out of games, boys refused to sit next to him at dinner, or pretended not to hear if he said anything in his dorm after lights-out.” So much so that finally one guardian, kinder than the others—the adults here are not teachers but “guardians”—takes him aside to assure him that “if I didn’t want to be creative, if I really didn’t feel like it, that was perfectly all right. Nothing wrong with it, she said.”
Ishiguro is extremely good at recreating the special, oppressive atmosphere of school (and any other institution, for that matter)—the cliques that form, the covert rivalries, the obsessive concern with who sat next to whom, who was seen talking to whom, who is in favor at one moment and who is not. All of this is related in the flat, affectless voice of Kathy H.—polite, sensible, but also convincingly capable of childish jokes and cruelties: “Tommy, you got poo-poo on your back!” and making vomiting noises on seeing a couple holding hands. The tone tends to quell the questions that begin to emerge and trouble one like an indefinable sound or smell in a familiar scene. Why does Miss Lucy, while trying to reassure Tommy, at the same time “shake with rage”? And what is it she refers to when she speaks indignantly of the children not “being taught enough”? She cannot mean that they do not study enough. Tommy senses that “what she was talking about was, you know, about us. What’s going to happen to us one day. Donations and all that.” Actually, they have been told that they would be donating something of themselves but they simply had not gone beyond this and made connections with anything specific. The secret and sinister aspect of the “donations” was not addressed.
It is the reader who begins to wonder: Why is the artwork so important for the children to produce? Why is it that it is all these children possess? Ominously, there is no reference to, no connection made with, the outer world at all. Clearly the outer world is not to know of their existence. They do not even go out on an occasional shopping expedition; tradesmen arrive with boxes that are unloaded and from which they select their T-shirts and the tapes of music that they enjoy, among other things. These are the Sales that bring the children to the highest pitch of excitement, and give them so much satisfaction that they never ask for more, for example, to go into the world from which these desirable goods come.
Following Tommy’s talk with Miss Lucy, even Kathy H. begins to question: “What’s the link? Why did she bring up donations? What’s that got to do with you being creative?” Could the Gallery be the link—that rumored depository for which a mysterious visitor, known only as Madame, chooses the best of their artwork? Why does she collect their work? Kathy senses that “it’s all linked in, though I can’t figure out how.” Although the students know about the Gallery—as about “donations”—they instinctively shy away from mentioning it in the presence of the guardians. Another thing they have picked up on is that Madame, when she visits Hailsham about twice a year, takes care not to meet any of them. Ruth says, “She’s scared of us…. I used to think she was just snooty, but it’s something else, I’m sure of it now. Madame’s scared of us.”
To test Ruth’s theory, they arrange a confrontation with her and it is as they suspected:
As she came to a halt, I glanced quickly at her face…. And I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her…. She was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.
The few other people they come in touch with—the gardeners and the deliverymen—joke with them, laugh, even call them “sweetheart.” The guardians are variously strict and kind. There is Miss Emily, the head guardian, for instance, who, when reprimanding them for having grown a bit too rowdy at the Sales, repeats phrases like “unworthy of privilege” and “misuse of opportunity” that they fail to understand but
her general drift was clear enough: we were all very special, being Hailsham students, and so it was all the more disappointing when we behaved badly. Beyond that though, things became a fog.
Yet there is this unchallenged idea that they were different:
We knew a few things about ourselves—about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside—but hadn’t yet understood what any of it meant…. Because it doesn’t really matter how well your guardians try to prepare you: all the talks, videos, discussions, warnings, none of that can really bring it home. Not when you’re eight years old, and you’re all together in a place like Hailsham.
So there is no moment of revelation, no lightning bolt of realization: the children have grown up with this knowledge and, in their way, they are loyal to it, to Hailsham which represents it, just as an ordinary child is to family or home.
This is Ishiguro’s masterstroke, that he does not make Hailsham the place of horror it would be if he was to adhere to the rules of the genres of science fiction and horror movies: he makes it the most normal place he can, almost an exact replica of our own world. This makes it credible that the children are so disquietingly, so passively accepting of it, of all they have been told and taught. Other than Tommy’s outbursts on the football field and temper tantrums, there is no sign of any rebellion, and even these are put down to merely his uncontrolled nature as they would be in any school or playground.
In fact, it is the outer world that seems to them a place to avoid: it is the unknown and they are not keen to step over the border. The woods at the top of the hill, for instance, seem to symbolize for them all that is dark and dangerous. They never go up to explore them or play in them as other children might; instead, the woods cast a shadow over the whole of Hailsham; the children have nightmares about them, they frighten each other with them and make up stories about them—how a boy who had run away had been found in these woods, tied to a tree and with his feet cut off; how a girl who had climbed over the fence to explore them tried to get back but was not allowed to and so “her ghost was always wandering about the woods, gazing over Hailsham, pining to be let back in.”