“From our myopia arose our dystopia.” (Anthony Marais)

How are you feeling about the current state of the world, Reader? Yeah, me too.This week’s theme is dystopian novels…

Firstly, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (2014) which I first heard about over on Naomi’s blog. Ice Cream Fifteen Star lives sometime in the future, in the Nighted States, at a time when a disease called posies means life expectancy is around eighteen years.

“Posies grown inside and outside, blackish death put roots into your body and its flowers bloom.”

A disease called WAKS – which may or may not be the same as posies – has wiped out ‘sleepers’, the white population. The children and young adults who make up the surviving population of the Nighted States grow up quickly. Ice Cream is a hunter, sergeant to her tribe – the Sengles – and under pressure to hurry up and have a baby before she too succumbs to posies.

“The dusking sleep of Lowell City take my loneliness. I ride home to my full-grown trouble, to my people few and feary small, my Sengle town.”

Ice Cream Star is a wonderful protagonist: strong, feisty, dynamic. The language that Newman has created for her is highly effective, capturing a sense of new speech for a new world, a world where ‘standard’ English no longer holds dominance or relevance. The language furthers the context of a story told by a young woman of colour, where to be middle aged and white is ‘Other’.  This is not a future where an older, white, middle-class patriarchy dominate. When Ice Cream meets a white man in his thirties, a “roo”, the lines on his face, blond hair and blue eyes are deeply odd to her.

“Something liven in his frosten eyes, like water stirred by fish.”

This never entirely goes away, even as the two become deeply bonded. The fact that roos live longer, that they may have a cure for posies, takes on a new urgency as Ice-Cream’s beloved older brother, Driver, starts to show signs of the disease.

“My brother lain like sleeping water, loose. Arm rest above the covers, and his hand itself look easy. I touch his shoulder careful, and his breath pause like a question. I hold my breath along. Sigh gratty when he breathe again.”

Ice Cream and her roo set out on a quest for a cure, taking them into contact with other tribes, danger and desolate cities, long abandoned.

“And the cloud slow from the moon. Light give back its silver grief. Empty towers sharpen, like a goliath monument of loss; a burial yard of giants left upon the fearing world.”

The Country of Ice Cream Star is a novel of big themes: gender, race, religion, civilisation, war. As I was reading it I first thought it was about 100 pages too long (its 629 pages in my edition) but now I’m not sure. It may have just been where my mind was when I was reading it – stressed out & tired! Having finished it a few weeks ago, the novel – and particularly the idiosyncratic, poetic voice of Ice Cream Star – have really stayed with me. She’s a truly unique heroine.

In the Country of Ice Cream Star also reminded me of a film I saw a few years back, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which featured a similarly impressive female protagonist and an astonishing lead performance by Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee ever:

Secondly, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), which was shortlisted for the Booker. We are categorically told the setting is “England, late 1990s”, and so this is an alternative version of recent history in a recogniseable land. Ishiguro cleverly drip-feeds the reader information so that you slowly piece together what is happening to make this different to the “England, late 1990s” we know. As such, to avoid spoilers, this will be an uncharacteristically short discussion 😉

The narrator Kath describes growing up at a residential school, Hailsham, and her friendship with fellow students Ruth and Tommy. Gradually, Kath starts to realise that there is something about Hailsham students, utterly cut off from the outside world, which sets them apart from other people.

“So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there… who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you – of how you brought into this world and why – and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror that you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.”

On the one hand, as Kath explores her relationship with Ruth and Tommy,  it is a simple tale of three people and the dynamics between them, the deep love they hold for one another alongside the petty betrayals they inflict on one another.

“I now felt awful, and I was confused. But as we stood there staring at the fog and rain, I could think of no way now to repair the damage I’d done… then after a few further seconds of silence, Ruth walked off into the rain.”

But of course it’s so much more, because Ishiguro is a complex writer interested in difficult subjects, and he is exploring how we work out our place in the world and how much of that is pre-determined.  Although the novel could be described as science fiction, it shares much with his Booker winning The Remains of the Day, being about transience, lost opportunities, duty and regret.

“‘I keep thinking about this river somewhere, and the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.’”

As I was reading this, I was thinking: why don’t they fight? Why do they just unquestioningly accept their lot? Why don’t they rail against those dictating how they spend their lives? Don’t they want more? Why aren’t they kicking against it all and demanding justice? And then I realised this is Ishiguro’s master stroke. It’s not science fiction he’s writing. Why aren’t I doing more of those things, for myself and for others?

Never Let Me Go was adapted in 2010 into a film starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, as well as my long standing girl-crush Charlotte Rampling (I basically want to be her/Jane Birkin, fluent in French with artfully dishevelled hair, living a bohemian transcontinental life. Never going to happen.) All the spoilers I’ve so carefully avoided are included in this trailer, so don’t click play if you don’t want to know!

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30 thoughts on ““From our myopia arose our dystopia.” (Anthony Marais)

  1. So pleased you enjoyed Ice Cream Star. You’re not the first person I’ve seen compare it to Beasts of the Southern Wild – I need to watch that, I think.

    Never Let Me Go is probably my least favourite Ishiguro but I wonder if that’s because I knew the twist before I read it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for alerting me to Ice Cream Star 🙂 I really liked Beasts of the Southern Wild – I hope you enjoy it!

      I don’t think I would have got nearly so much out of Never Let Me Go if I knew the twist – I enjoyed piecing together. I don’t think it lends itself to re-reads as much as say, The Remains of the Day, so I think it is a weaker novel, but good for a one-off read.

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  2. A lovely reminder of Never Let Me Go. As you say, the twist means that it doesn’t lend itself to re-reads as much as The Remains of the Day. Still, Ishiguro is one of our finest writers, so you know you’re in for a treat with any of his books. 🙂

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    • I’m really behind on Ishiguro, but I have plenty piled up in the TBR – I must get round to them! I find it hugely impressive that his writing is so beautiful, almost delicate, and yet so readable too. Few writers manage that, it’s such a skill.

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  3. I also finished ‘Never Let Me Go’ feeling frustrated at the stoic acceptance, but in retrospect you’re absolutely right that this not a flaw but part of the genius of the novel.

    I’ve not come across ‘The Country of Ice Cream Star’ but I absolutely loved ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ so on the strength of your comparison, it’s going on the wish list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was really furious, and then I realised that was the whole point! It truly made me think, and question my choices.

      I hope you enjoy Ice Cream Star – different to Beasts of the Southern Wild in lots of ways, but definitely things in common too. I really enjoyed them both 🙂

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  4. For me first I’ve heard of Country of Ice Cream Star, but I’m another who thought Beasts of Southern Wild a brilliant film so if it’s as good as that then will look forward to reading it. As for Never Let Me Go, I simply loved that book – thought it was a work of absolute genius!!

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  5. Ishiguro is a wonderful writer. I’ve read Nocturnes, a collection of short stories, and was simply amazed at what he could do with them. I didn’t read Never Let Me Go because I had seen the film. Usually it’s not a deterrent, but in this case, not knowing his writing, I thought I’d try something else.

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    • I’ve got Nocturnes on the TBR – along with many other of his books! – so I’ll definitely move it up the pile.

      I think you made a good call with Never Let Me Go – I don’t think I would have got nearly so much out of it if I’d seen the film first.

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      • From what you wrote about it I got the sense that it’s more prosaic than the Nocturnes, which are rather poetic in images and feelings. They made me think of Graham Greene’s writing in The End of the Affair! And now I’m curious what Ishiguro says of Graham Greene, if anything.

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  6. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED Never Let Me Go (but didn’t know anything about it when I read it). I didn’t love the film version so much… it lacked the subtleties of the book and there were certain aspects, such as Ishiguro’s ‘new’ (and chilling) definitions of words such as ‘carer’ and ‘completion’ that didn’t translate to film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely think its better not to know anything about it when you read the book – I’m so glad I didn’t know. That’s interesting about the film – the trailer looked pretty faithful & I thought I might give it a go, but it’s a shame it didn’t take those elements of the novel forward. It was the subtle building up of the picture that made the story so strong, and as you say, truly chilling.

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    • Golden age crime is a great comfort read, absolutely! I like knowing that knots will be untied, things sorted. You’ve inspired me – I’ve got a super-cheap set of Ngaio Marsh from Book People on the TBR -now is the perfect time…

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  7. I did not enjoy Never let me go. I was fascinated by the general story line but somehow the writing did not strike a chord with me. I think I picked up the book at the wrong time since I have heard only good review about the read. Thanks for pointing out the movie. I should watch it.

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    • It can be so dependent on when you read a book as to whether you enjoy it, can’t it? With Ice Cream Star, I’m still not sure if I think it was too long or if I was just in the wrong place for a book that length when I read it! I hope you enjoy the film 🙂

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  8. I’ve recently bought ‘Never Let Me Go’, and I’m more intrigued to read it after your review, but I must stress it is not too late be fluent in French and morph into a bohemian transcontinental woman with messy hair. Rupaul is the supermodel of the world, and also a black man in his fifties, so even if it took a while you could get a job in a French university library/coffee shop/Eurostar, and avoid hairdressers, never stop reaching for the stars! If I’m honest one of the reasons I enjoy learning Scandinavian languages is so I can pretend I live in a Nordic Noir book/film, and because I wish I was a Viking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel inspired – I’ll cancel my hair appointment! I’ll give it a go – I think I’ll master messy hair a whole lot easier than another language, but at least I’ll be on my way 🙂

      I hope you enjoy Never Let Me Go, I’m planning on reading The Buried Giant as my next Ishiguro after reading your review earlier in the week, he’s such an interesting writer.

      A Danish friend of mine tells me we’re all Vikings, so wish no more – you are a Viking!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ice Cream Star sounds like an interesting read. Your description of the language reminded me of the language in Cloud Atlas – the post-apocalyptic society. Strange, but it made sense too. I’ve not read Never Let Me Go. I enjoyed the film, thought it was okay, but it didn’t impress me that much. As always, I wish I’d read the book first – will I never learn that lesson? Enjoy your weekend 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d forgotten about Cloud Atlas – thanks for reminding me, I’ll dig out my copy & take a look.

      It is nearly always better to read the book first, isn’t it? This is why I’ve still got the BBC War & Peace to watch – I fear the book will go unread, the TV programme unviewed 😀

      Hope you have a lovely weekend – fingers crossed for some sunshine 🙂

      `

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: “I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone, which is about a half an inch wide.” (Larry David) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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