Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
I seem to remember that when The Remains Of The Day came out, some critic or other remarked that it was nice to see a sensible novel, what with all this silly magic realism going around. I don't know why it was considered so remarkable that Kazuo Ishiguro was writing books without flying carpets in them; maybe it was simply because he was called Kazuo, and not Julian or Martin. It's the same sloppy thinking that gets him placed in the 'Asian Fiction' section of my local bookshop. Despite being born in Nagasaki, Ishiguro is very English, and his latest novel begins in that most English of settings, a public school. (Go here for an explanation of the perversely misleading British expression, if needs be.)
In fact, it doesn't quite begin there - the description of the school is framed as a flashback, so the immediate implication is that we're embarking on that current fave, the Friends Reunited narrative - see Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle, the TV series "40", and back to Frederic Raphael's The Glittering Prizes - even, perhaps, to Brideshead Revisited. But pretty soon we realise this isn't Jennings or even Harry Potter. The children are known by forenames and initials - Kathy H., Tommy D. Shades of Josef K.? There are no teachers, just "guardians". Parents are never mentioned, and nobody seems to go home. And what are donors, and carers? And why do these kids seem to spend all their time doing art and PE?
There's a mystery underpinning the narrative, and Ishiguro lets it seep out almost casually. He's aided by the Bildungsroman structure; the narrator, Kathy, comes to realise her ultimate destiny with a realistically childlike sense of inevitability, the same way that the non-existence of Santa Claus comes as a gradual awareness, rather than a brutal shock. (Incidentally, readers of the US paperback edition will have had their sense of shock at plot developments tempered even further by the comically po-faced Library of Congress catalogue listing at the front, which treats works of fiction like junior high text books. Let's just say that The Wasp Factory would receive something like "1. Scotland--Fiction. 2. Setting fire to insects--Fiction. 3. Oh, by the way, the narrator's a girl, did I mention that?--Fiction.")
As the narrative develops, we realise that we're in the realms of Brave New World or Soylent Green, but the sheer acquiescence with which characters accept their cog-like roles makes matters even more chilling. The world he creates is so close to our own ("England, late 1990s", he says; Norfolk, Littlehampton, Oxfam shops, Walkmans), so distant from Huxley's glassy sci-fi.
Ishiguro doesn't do polemical messages, but there is clearly something here about the necessary sacrifice of individuals - "poor creatures", as one character puts it - for the collective good, and the moral quandaries that arise from that. But, most importantly is the disconcerting calm of his characters, and the acceptance of what the reader sees as weird, freakish, unreal. He's done what seemed highly unlikely in 1989, and crafted a very English fragment of magic realism.