A Shadow World

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 …

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