Strands of Memory

“… Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value the most, I don’t ever see them fading”

says Kathy, the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. Staying true to her words, Kathy reconstructs her past in this evocative novel. As she rummages through the memories of her childhood spent at Hailsham – a special boarding school in England – we see the story of friendship, love and hope unfold. Kathy works as a ‘carer’ (someone who tends to the people who are going through the process of organ donation) in a medical facility. For her, the years spent at Hailsham are very important. It becomes very clear from her accounts that those years had shaped her beliefs, dreams and her ideas about future. At the age of 31, when she is narrating the story to the readers with her distinctive maturity, wisdom and calmness, she strikes us as someone who seems older than her age. Her recollections are primarily about two of her best friends, Tommy and Ruth. Tommy is a clumsy boy, isolated from rest of the students in the school. His poor skills at art – something the school is strangely obsessive about – makes him the object of scorn by his teachers (or guardians as they are called) and was often ridiculed by his schoolmates. Kathy is one of the few people at Hailsham who have a soft corner for him. She always tries to talk to him and help him. In the years of childhood, a very special bond begins to develop between them. When Tommy comes of his age, he gets into a relationship with Ruth. Not wishing to make things complicated, Kathy withdraws her own plans to confess her love to Tommy and helps her friend Ruth instead. Unlike Kathy, or for that matter Tommy, Ruth is very extrovert. They both look upon Kathy as someone who has the power to help them whenever their relationship go through rough patch. Never Let Me Go What makes this seemingly regular teenage story special is the world the entire characters are set in. For the most part of the novel, we are not given a full understanding of it, even though there are many inklings to it from the beginning. As soon as Kathy starts her narration, we understand that Hailsham is no ordinary school. Unusual traits of the ‘guardians’, myths about the school and the rumours about the unknown world beyond the sprawling school premises create almost a gothic atmosphere. We see Hailsham to be shrouded in a sort of dark secrecy. As the story continues, we understand that Hailsham is a place in a dystopian world and the children of that boarding school are, in fact clones, being raised for the purpose of donating organs. Once they step out of Hailsham they become ‘donors’, giving away their body bit by bit and eventually succumb to death (or ‘completion’ as it is known). These clones are designed not to possess the reproductive capabilities; and the lifespan of their kind is very short. The inescapable truths about their doomed future don’t quite answer all the questions about their lives. What is tragic about their life is they are aware of their future, though in a limited level of knowledge. Their upbringing at Hailsham has made them stay away from discussing certain topics in open. They see the injustice, which is forced upon them, as something very normal. They never seem to understand the enormity of death that is looming over them. Like animals raised in the farm, they live on until they reach ‘completion’. But what the rigorous conditioning fails to achieve is the complete suppression of human emotions in them. We see these youngsters go through emotional turmoil, heartaches and feel a sense of despair. What seems to be bothering them the most is not death but the inability to foster dreams for their future. The protagonists, who seem to have accepted their bleak future without any misgivings, start to rethink their position when they realize there is a possibility to defer their donation for few years. This knowledge, coupled with the confession of Ruth about how she thought she was an unfit partner for Tommy and how Kathy should have been his companion, starts a series of events that puts them on a journey to explore their life. Tommy and Kathy attempt to piece together every bit of the knowledge from their childhood – the training, the contacts and the myths – to see if they can buy time for themselves.

As unusual as it is, Never Let Me Go is a deeply moving story. Kathy narrates it without knowing that she is telling us one of the most brutal stories. She never actually talks about how cruelly the world has treated them. Instead, she focuses on her complicated relationship with Tommy. And how they dreamed together of a life that could have been better than the one that is thrust upon them. It is heartbreaking to see the protagonists hanging on to little myths from their childhood in the hope of obtaining the ‘deferral’. Ishiguro vividly narrates their life at Hailsham and afterward. We see them explore the ideas of identity, sexuality and life. We live their small moments of happiness. Check how Ishiguro draws a word picture of their fear. There was a story making rounds in Hailsham of a boy who once attempted to go out of the school campus and was later found dead with his limbs chopped. This gruesome story was used to forbid the pupils from even thinking of breaking away. The horrors of this myth was so  severe that miscreants in the school are often made to stare at the woods outside the campus all night as a dreaded punishment. Like many of the myths that filled their childhood, there is one about a room in Hailsham. They call it Norfolk, after an actual place in England. Whenever somebody loses things, it eventually ends up in this room. Later when the protagonists come out of Hailsham, they continue to believe that all the beautiful things in their life that have been lost could be found in Norfolk. In the dreadful present, they hope that Norfolk reclaims for them what they truly deserved.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro unveils the world of the students of Hailsham in an emotionally convincing way. He presents Kathy as a decidedly understated narrator; even while she talks about her bleak future. The subtlety of the description about her feelings towards Tommy speaks a lot about the childhood conditioning. It is heart-wrenching to see that the characters know nothing of their world. Their self-denial, as a result of their upbringing, stops them from even attempting. We keep thinking how such poor creatures can be complacent with their world. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the finest storytellers of our time. Never Let Me Go was short-listed for The Man Booker Prize in 2005 and also for Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction. This book features in the TIME magazine’s list of 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. There was also a critically acclaimed film made based on this novel. Never Let Me Go talks about the smugness of death and the crime called complacency. It reminds us how important it is to live every moment of our life to the fullest. Read this novel for its sheer brilliance.

[Trailer of the film based on this novel]

Jollof Rice, Pepper Soup and Two Books

A couple of weeks back there was a book sale in Mangalore. Enticed by the low price that they had advertised for their books, I entered the dingy exhibition hall with the hope of picking up some interesting books. My excitement was short lived, as I saw stacks of tediously ubiquitous popular titles welcoming me. I remembered a quote by Haruki Murakami. “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”. Any bibliophile worth his salt would live by this adage.

After navigating through the labyrinth of Fifty Shades of Whatnot, I saw some critically acclaimed books hidden under the heaps of cheesy bestsellers. Novels by Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kazuo Ishiguro looked promising. I picked up few of their books and asked the vendor if I could get more books by these authors. He looked at me disdainfully and said ‘Nobody likes to read such books.’ He pointed at his stacks of Fifty Shades of Whatnot and continued ‘That’s what people read.’

I was delighted that at least I found what I liked. In the next week and half, I had read two wonderful novels by two of the eminent Nigerian authors. These novels gave me a window to the magnificent land in West Africa. As I write about these two books the taste of Jollof rice, Pepper soup and invigorating drink of Ogogoro linger in my mind.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun is the winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells us the story of the forgotten Nigerian Civil War in this book. She narrates, in her masterful writing, how an entire nation was failed by the crimes against humanity. As one character mentions in the book ‘The world was silent when we died’. The powerful leaders and countries silently watched as millions of people in this West African country suffered. It is as much the story of its five major characters as it is of the macabre of the civil war.

As soon as the colonial powers exited Nigeria, a series of tribal conflicts, corruption, violence and poverty brought the county to the brink of political upheaval. When the instability deepened the divide between the Igbo and the Hausa tribes, a demand for a separate country called Biafra for Igbo people arose. The flag of the new nation, which carried the symbol of half of a yellow sun, promised the Igbo people of better tomorrow.


There are five major characters in this novel. Olanna and Kainene are twin sisters hailing from an elite Igbo family. They both are very different from one other. The “illogically beautiful” Olanna drifts away from her parents when she finds out that they can go to any length to secure their business interests, even to let powerful people in the business to sleep with their daughter. She works as a school teacher and lives with Odenigbo. He is a University professor and a champion of socialism and tribalism. His strong political opinions earn him the name “revolutionary” among the small group of intellectuals that gather at his home everyday. Kainene is completely different from her sister. She is a strong-headed woman and she has always made her parents proud. In her father’s words, “she is not just like a son, but she is like two.” Richard is her boyfriend. He is a British writer who supports the Biafra cause. Ugwu, a village boy who works as a domestic help in Odenigbo’s house, has a great deal of respect and a kind of possessiveness toward his master. Through the eyes of these characters the story unfolds. As the war progresses their lives take unexpected turn. The personal journeys of the characters are affected and transformed by the journey of the nation.

The novel explores the stark realities of Nigeria. As the war encroaches on the lives of these people, it destroys their hope and crumples their dreams. Some of the characters grow through this ordeal. They become stronger with endurance and patience. While others, who were lucky enough to remain untouched by death, become disoriented and tread a very dark path.

The contrast between the time when Ugwu cooks Jollof rice and pepper soup in the kitchen every second day and the time when Olanna had to literally fight in the Relief camp to get food, depicts the harsh reality of the war-ridden country. The critical eyes of the author do not spare anyone here. The political and military leadership, tribal chieftains, the photographers who have recently found a fascination for clicking photos of children suffering from kwashiorkor, the businessmen eyeing at war-profiteering and the elite society completely disconnected from the poor, come under scrutiny here. Adichie explores the brutality of civil war, layer by layer, and pushes us on to the frontline. And what we see there is a very gruesome picture. Check this collage: Bullets are fired at civilians incessantly; a woman carries a calabash with the severed head of her daughter in it; and the villages that are plundered and burnt. The violence doesn’t stop there. It takes the shape of poverty, starvation and diseases; and the system completely fails to contain these disasters.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a historical novel, which is becoming increasingly relevant in the world that we are living in today. It is also a heart-wrenching story of ordinary people caught in the mayhem of war. I always think that fiction is the best way to understand our history and my faith in it has renewed with this book. Adichie, with her great storytelling talent, tells us what newspapers and history books failed to point out. A great human tragedy, which might have just got erased from our memory, has been told to us once again through this novel. Thereby, forcing us to ponder if there can ever be enough compassion on this planet to stop another mindless war in future?

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Those who have read Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road have this one thing common to say: ‘The book is unlike anything that you have ever read before.’ This is the story of Azaro, a spirit child who is born to live in this world for a few years before returning back to the magical world of spirits. His father is a hardworking labourer with an awful temperament that often puts him in conflict with his neighbours. Azaro’s mother works as a hawker in the market for a meagre income. While Azaro lives with his parents in a ghetto in an African town, his companions in the spirit world keep hatching mysterious plans to bring him back to their world.

Madam Koto is an ambitious woman who runs the local watering hole. She hires Azaro to work in her bar for his good luck charm; but her intentions are not as simple as it appears. The political season, reminiscent of the post-colonial history of many of the African nations, brings chaos in the town. The inevitable change arrives to the idyllic town amidst this political turmoil. Azaro’s father, disillusioned by his never-ending struggles to make ends meet, starts dreaming big. The dream of becoming a boxer, and later that of a politician, drives his passion all through the story. Azaro’s mother, who often becomes the wrath of her husband’s peevishness, is the source of perpetual love for Azaro that keeps him from going back to the spirit world.

Azaro is not completely disconnected from the spirit world. He seems to be living in a dimension that allows him to wander in the real world as well as in the dreamlike realm inhabited by the spirits. Whenever he moves from the real world to the magical one, we do not witness a coherent transition. The reality merges into the fabulous with the fluidity of a fine poetry. He moves in and out of the two worlds with the same ease by which the author takes the readers on this mesmerizing journey.

Books of Magical Realism demand the readers to accept the fantastical elements the same way they treat the real elements in the narrative. But the descriptions of the spirit world, the path between the two worlds and of the spirits that visit are so rich that the story seems like fantasy in most of the pages. Ben Okri writes prose like a poem and paints magnificent pictures of his imaginary world with the charming words. Sample the first paragraph of the novel.

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”

The book is filled with Okri’s rich imagination and excellent writing. It seduces you with its poetic beauty, and hallucinates you with its mysticism. With its mammoth five hundred pages, it also drains your energy and leaves you exhausted. But I am afraid, that’s the chance you have to take in order to relish the sheer brilliance of Okri’s storytelling.


I couldn’t help but notice the influence of Gabriel García Márquez. The unnamed town in this novel had shades of the much loved Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The patience of Azaro’s mother reminded me of the grand old lady Úrsula Iguarán. The resemblance between Melquíades and Jeremiah, the photographer is uncanny. Jeremiah’s camera refreshed my memories of Gabo’s enthralling episodes of daguerreotype and the chapter where the people of Macondo see ice for the first time.

Ben Okri’s book won The Booker Prize in 1991. He went on to write Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches to complete The Famished Road Trilogy. Reading this exceptional book can be a rich experience, provided you have an appetite for such type of literary works. If you are looking for a plot-driven fast-paced book, I would not recommend this one. The Famished Road takes you in to the rich world of Nigerian mythology. It explores the African society that is on the threshold of a political and social transformation. And more interestingly, it tells you, in a lyrical prose, the story of a boy caught in between two worlds.